Many articles have been written recently about the extraordinary life of President Jimmy Carter. He has been praised for having the richest post-presidential life of any former President, although there is certainly a lot of competition (beginning with William Howard Taft, who went on to serve as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court). No one can deny, however, that Carter has done a great deal for humanity in his “golden” years. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
At 98, he has outlived every other former President, and is clearly an outlier in longevity, as in so many other areas of his life. For the past six or seven years, he has been battling metastasized melanoma. With lesions even on his brain, he appears from a distance to have continued to have a somewhat normal life. Now, given his condition and his advanced age, he has chosen to end treatment, and enter hospice care at home.
As he has in other ways, he is teaching us much about how to end a long and full life. Those of us who are in the hospice field hope that he lives for many months, since one of our major challenges remains getting people into hospice care in time to reap its benefits. We hope that he is accessing social work, pastoral care, equipment, and palliative treatment.
It is likely that anyone his age would meet the basic requirements for entering hospice care. All that is necessary is a doctor’s referral, citing at least one condition that, left untreated, could result in death within a six-month period. At 98, who would question that? In addition, providers look to assess the needs of patients by considering whether they have problems with, or require assistance with, ADL (Activities of Daily Living). It seems likely again, given that he is so old, that he would need help with at least some regular tasks.
While palliative care is provided for the relief of symptoms, it has a very different aim than curative treatment. It is intended to make the patient comfortable. Not all nonagenarians have pain, but the majority probably have some arthritis, stiffness, or just aches and pains. They could have trouble swallowing, have a level of memory loss or dementia, or suffer from lasting effects of past medical treatment. Making someone’s remaining time more comfortable is a primary goal for hospice workers.
Jimmy Carter’s deep Christian faith has been well documented. Even he, though, is now going through a new experience. Whether he has concerns for himself, for his 95-year-old wife, Rosalyn, or for other relatives, there may well be issues of closure or unfinished business. Pastoral care professionals and social workers are included on a hospice team, and they begin by assessing risks of bereavement for those who will survive, as well as by determining what support would be useful for the patient him/herself. These staff members also assist with the practical aspects of the dying process-funeral arrangements, paperwork, financial questions, and other issues of concern. Although we can all marvel at the length of his life, that often does not diminish the grief felt by the family, or ensure that all necessary steps have been successfully completed.
If the Carters are fortunate, their hospice will offer arts therapy and support, including home visits. While this is not a condition of participation for Medicare reimbursement to a hospice, it is a wonderful additional service that many of us fundraise to be able to offer. Music can often unlock memories and even speech in patients who have stopped talking, and arts therapists can help all members of a family to express their feelings with concrete objects or drawings. Our hospice even has an artist who provides portraits of the patient, at the request of families. These are often used at memorial services, and can serve as beloved mementos.
We often have spouses, in particular, say that they “breathed a sigh of relief” when the hospice team took over, and they could feel supported and freed from worry. People in the home, when hospice care is given there, are given instruction on the use of “comfort packs”, which are left in case of increased pain or new symptoms that arise between nursing visits, as well as on other equipment and safety procedures. They are also given a number to call, at any time of the day or night, instead of 911, if they have chosen DNR status. Rather than be taken by ambulance to the hospital, they can be talked through issues or questions by a member of the hospice team. After the patient has passed, the family can immediately reach out to hospice, who will come and do the legal death pronouncement, so that the body can be removed. While there is no required timetable for any of this, the family can count on its hospice to be there for them.
We wish for President Carter and his family the peace and joy that can come with a period of reflection, togetherness, and letting go. Hospice staff members often comment that it is a privilege to spend time with those who are dying, and that there is often more joy than sorrow, made more likely by the absence of pain or the effects of treatment. In addition to his years of national and charitable service, we are grateful to him for bringing attention to the benefits of hospice care. He is once again leading by example, and we will all be better for it.
New York Times: How to Choose a Hospice
New York Times: How Does Hospice Care Work?