Religionless Palliative Care Comes of Age

December 22, 2017.

As 2017 comes to a close, palliative care is still unavailable in more than 80% of the world. What hospice and palliative care services do exist in the Lower and Middle Income Countries is provided by charity funded and faith based hospices, operating hand to mouth, on a wing and a prayer, just as they have since medieval times when the first hospices were founded by religious orders. Christians have always spent scarce resources caring for the sick because doing so is a corporal work of mercy — it amounts to caring for Jesus himself (Matthew 25). How can these ethics be secularised for modernity? What arguments can be used to persuade secular governments that spending scarce resources on (religionless) palliative care — a stipulated human rights obligation — is good public policy?

First of all because the “incurables” abandoned by health systems built to address trauma, triage, cure, and infectious diseases, are the citizens of those governments, if not refugees and migrants who are resident in their countries. The charity funded hospices that still struggle to meet the needs of dying patients, such as Hospice Ethiopia pictured above, can’t possibly care for all the palliative patients in need, given the global increases in life expectancy combined with the proliferation of complex chronic and drug resistant diseases. Since less than 12% of modern deaths will be “sudden,” the vast majority of people will need long term and palliative care as they age out of the workforce. How can governments justify public expenditures on care for them when most allocate less than 5% of their GDP to health? Unlike mothers with newborns who have the potential to work, the seriously ill and dying have no apparent agency: they contribute little or nothing to society or the economy, so are considered a drain on working families, public services, and insurance designed to deliver good health and restore people to productive lives.

Making the case for publicly funded (religionless) palliative care means reframing the concepts of utility and agency in terms of the social impact of providing palliative care to children, the frail elderly, and the terminally ill. First of all, just because those who need palliative care are not “contributing” now, does not mean they never did, and that they still cannot. Most of those who are now elderly, ill, and abandoned, have raised families, paid taxes, fought for their countries, created art, and served their communities in multiplicities of ways. Their frailty and dependence qua dependence, represents a invaluable social and human resource that collectively mirrors the humility we must expect to learn as we enter older age. The agency of those apparently without agency consists in their teaching younger generations who are given the opportunity to serve them (through taxation, the labor force, volunteering, etc.) the value of giving without repayment in kind; palliative care patients provide societies as a whole with the opportunity to accumulate the social capital of civic trust, compassion, and generosity: the connective tissue of resilient communities.

There are, of course, more easily measurable clinical and epidemiological impacts that can be used to persuade policymakers and health economists that “upstream spend” on palliative care is rational and cost-effective once hope for expensive cures or futile, life-prolonging courses of treatment is gone. Because palliative care focuses on the family and caregivers as well as the patient, it reduces overall health system costs and increases the chance that survivors (caregivers) will have better mental and physical health outcomes. It does this through providing accompaniment, support, and professional attention to caregivers and families of dependent patients.

In secular societies, where by definition, faith and a sense of mystery is a personal/private choice rather than a given, individuals have trouble assimilating the suffering that inevitably accompanies life-limiting illness. Suffering is generally either medicalised or denied/repressed, often surfacing as problematic substance use disorders (behaviours with harmful public health and social impacts). Palliative care can address these dimensions of repressed and refracted suffering, which almost always surface with death, dying, and serious illness. By accompanying patients and families into the unknown territory of suffering, rather than abandoning them to navigate it alone, the palliative care approach, as the World Health Organisation calls is, makes societies more resilient and “fit for purpose.”

The evidence shows that family and caregiver stress — sometimes post-traumatic stress after a hospital death — from looking after dying patients with poor communication and no support from professional staff, is creating a slow motion epidemic of mental illness in survivors. The untreated depression, trauma, and pain of unaccompanied patients and families, generates a (downstream) public health crisis of its own, given that for every palliative care patient, there are at least four or five (paid or informal) carers. These newly vulnerable populations will be more susceptible to both communicable and non-communicable diseases, including cancer, dementia, substance use disorder, and heart conditions. The antidote is upstream palliative care services that strengthen health systems and stimulate the development of skilled health workforces, promoting gender empowerment, quality education, and inclusive societies, all key goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In his Letters from Prison, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945, pondered the phenomenon of “religionless Christianity” in a world that has “come of age,” one where people driven to perform concrete works of mercy and justice no longer need the churches with their assurance of private salvation in return for piety. Publicly provided palliative care, Matthew 25 in action, could be seen as one such instance of religionless Christianity (or any other faith for that matter). In this day and age it is essential to supplement the “remnant” of faith based hospice care that still tends to the body of Christ, with religionless, publicly and insurance funded, palliative care. Advocating for this is what Bonhoeffer had in mind when he talked about proclaiming God’s word through the power of secular language.

Advertisements

Nursing Homes Provide Palliative Care for Older Persons in Bogotá

Although the dominant culture in Colombia traditionally values familial care for dependent elders, that culture is being eroded by the modern imperative of small families where both parents work and also care for small children. Care is becoming increasingly professionalised, subsidized through an agglomeration of public and private entities, from insurance companies to faith based organisations.

I was privileged to visit a couple of these nursing homes when I was in Bogotá for a palliative care advocacy workshop hosted by the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care and the two Colombian national palliative care organisations, ASOCUPAC and ACCP,  Asociación Cuidados Paliativos de Colombia.

Dra Maria Lucia Samudio, a palliative care physician who specialises in geriatrics, was my expert guide around the two nursing homes.

Both Dra. Maria Lucia, and Dra Mercedes Franco, a psychologist located in Cáli, who founded a palliative care foundation that works with the most marginalised populations, are involved with the Colombia Compassionate Communities, Todos Contigo. Declaración de Medellín.

Contigo

Representatives of these Compassionate Communities can participate in the Agenda 2030 High Level Political Forum in 2018, which will consider Goal #11, among others, concerning sustainable cities. Since the “Todos Contigo” project includes the provision of community based palliative care, which will be a novelty for the High Level Political Forum, it will be great to hear the Colombian colleagues present at the UN next year.

At the two nursing homes we visited — one of which was state subsidised, the other run by a lay Catholic organisation and funded by donations, the staff were welcoming, the patients appeared to receive meticulous attention, and everything was clean. Both facilities, like most nursing homes, are struggling to make ends meet, sometimes staff don’t get paid on time, and there is strong competition for scarce resources. They still maintained an atmosphere of loving, patient centered care, though. Families were visibly welcome, providing care and attention to relatives and friends.

According to my companion, Colombia is considering a law similar to Costa Rica’s Ley de Cuidadoras, which pays caregivers a basic income. Of course, this is key to achieving several of the Agenda 2030 Goals, including #4 Quality Education, and #5, gender empowerment.

Since the chronic care facility is located in a beautiful historic part of Bogotá, none of its essential features can be remodeled.

IMG_8078.jpgWhile it can be a tedious and expensive proposition to maintain an old building, there are some benefits, such as the sunroom, where patients and families can come and enjoy some daylight and socialisation.

IMG_8083

The gorgeous old chapel is the only part of the interior that has not been remodelled. It contains C17 paintings of the Annunciation and St.Catherine of Sienna (patron saint of the sick), which hang under the original latilla and plaster ceiling.

IMG_8105.jpg

The second facility we visited was only for older adults with palliative care needs.  Of 26 patients, 23 had dementia diagnoses. When operating at full strength a few years ago, they had around double the number of older adults, and also had children, so it was a multi-generational care home.  The children and abuelos together painted the mural at the top of this posts, on the occasion of the first World Hospice and Palliative Care Day in 2005.

The bedrooms are beautifully kept, and as homelike as possible with keepsakes in every one for a family like atmosphere.

IMG_8096I met Señor L. in the dining room, after all the “abuelos” as the staff called them, had lunched. Not a dementia patient himself, he had lost his wife to cancer and dementia a few months previously.  Their family photo, hung with a rosary, is on the wall of his room, which used to be theirs.

The topic of palliative care for older persons will be on the agenda of the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing next year at the United Nations, and IAHPC welcomes all palliative care team providers to submit their stories, photos, and videos (with permission of the elders of course) for a special series of articles on Ehospice focusing on palliative care for older persons.  We are beginning to gather a body of evidence from all our partners in many countries regarding the state of palliative and long term care for older persons. We are planning a campaign to promote this very exciting and timely topic at the Open Ended Working Group in July 2018, including with side events, expert panels, and testimony of civil society providers of palliative care for older persons. We invite you to join us and submit your stories!

fullsizeoutput_b3a.jpeg

Palliative care as transformative practice: dedicated to my hospice/palliative care friends and colleagues around the world

Palliative care transforms everyone who participates in it — who gives and receives it — from the inside out.  It also has the power to transform systems from the inside out.  Palliative care practitioners need public recognition and funding to accomplish these transformations for the benefit of patients, families, and health systems around the world.  Palliative care ethics cut against the grain of profit-oriented systems that reward individualistic, rather than socially embedded, conceptions of health and wellbeing.

Palliative care values people as human beings, as ends in themselves. Its ethical compass overrides the dominant system priorities, being pointed at the moral imperative of alleviating vulnerability and distress.

By identifying and attending to pain along multiple dimensions — to “total pain” — palliative care affirms the inherent value of the person.  Its concern with suffering amounts to a declaration that our common mortality makes us all, no matter how ill or debilitated, equal. In that sense, palliative care is profoundly democratic and non-elitist.  That in itself is transformative.

The qualities and virtues palliative care builds in practitioners at the bedside (the microcosm) have the power to shift world views in the macrocosm. It is not overstating the case to say that the development of palliative care represents the beginning of a paradigm shift. Unlike their patients, palliative care practitioners and advocates have voice and influence in the public world, and are using it to call for the discipline’s integration into national and global health systems as a matter of justice.

Palliative care advocates such as myself and my colleagues who work at the international level, remind countries of their human rights obligation to institutionalise palliative care as part of the right to the highest attainable standard of health. This requires that they develop policies and allocate funds to support it.

The strategy of presenting palliative care as a human right, rather than as an option, allows policymakers to see it as a universal need rather than a political football. Populations all over the world are rapidly ageing, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart conditions, is increasing. Funders and policymakers realise that they and their families will also need palliative care in the not so distant future. Universally recognisable needs rarely cause political fights.

Palliative care practice is politically subversive, although not in the conventional sense of political campaigns that cause harm by seeking power or shaming opponents. Its virtues and ethics are deeply political in the classical sense though, a sense that has been largely forgotten, but is immanent in our political DNA. These virtues are expressed in the friendship, courage, and honesty (truth-telling) that exemplify best practice palliative care.

When the ancient citizenship virtues are practiced in the modern context of the private realm, at the beside, palliative care communities are actually reconstructing the genetic material of the public sphere, much as stem cells do. They are rebuilding damaged ethical tissue from the inside out, causing the dominant system or politeia — body politic — to shed its old skins, and reorient itself toward the common, rather than the private good.

Snake_skin_coil

Palliative care and hospice practice inspires learning along spiritual, as well as clinical and psycho-social dimensions. Practitioners’  proximity to death and embrace of vulnerability, advances the emotional intelligence of society as a whole.  We have the privilege of accompanying people who are journeying between the worlds, our ‘patients.’ They and their personal caregivers have so much to teach us about what is really important during their final months and days.

Those teachings usually concern the values of surrender and open-heartedness, as well as struggle. Surrender, paradoxically, opens human consciousness to truths and realities that are not otherwise apparent when we are immersed in the more “worldly” dimensions of achievement and commerce.

Bedside practice teaches us to slow down, listen, and be respectful of both the “undignified” and the unfathomable.  What we learn there informs our family and public lives. It creates a ‘meme’ that can replicate effectively, transforming other key domains of our worlds.

May the vision of universal palliative care can become a reality!