Local End-of-Life Care: Employees of Benton Hospice Share Experiences

It’s been said that death is the great equalizer. No matter who you are in life, each of us must face the reality of our own death. A lot of us spend time thinking about what happens when we die, but what about those last few days or months before we die? For those at Benton Hospice Service (BHS), this is a question they help others answer on a daily basis.

What Benton Hospice Service Does
BHS provides end-of-life care that focuses on managing pain and other symptoms, while also supporting the emotional, spiritual, and psychological well-being of their clients. Choosing hospice can be empowering for the client because it means they are taking control of their last days, that they can live with dignity and comfort until the end. Hospice is reserved for those who have been given a prognosis of six months to live, should the illness run its natural course.

Many individuals in hospice choose to stay in their own homes. BHS provides visits, medications, supplies, and equipment to make this choice possible. Medicare and most types of insurance cover the costs of hospice, but those without financial means are still able to receive care due to monetary contributions from the community. Through BHS, every family member—which means anyone the patient shares a significant relationship with—benefits from a team of caring professionals including nurses, social workers, chaplains, physical therapists, bereavement specialists, and trained volunteers.

What’s It Like to Work in Hospice?
Working in hospice may sound like a morbid occupation, but for people like Mary Brutsaert it’s very life-affirming. As someone who has always thought about life’s “big questions,” hospice is a perfect fit for her.

“Life comes with many challenges and the big life transitions are the times in our lives where we are forced to take a closer look at what’s important, where we want to put our focus, what we can let go of, [and] what new thing we want to open ourselves up to,” she said. 

A social worker for BHS who carries a caseload of 20 to 24 patients (and their families), Brutsaert helps people get connected to the services they need, but she also provides emotional support. She points out that caregivers are often the most in need of this type of support. It’s a job many people don’t choose and one that they feel they can never do as well as they’d like. Brutsaert said it’s best described through a phrase used by fellow social worker Wendy Lustbader: caregiving is a dance between guilt and resentment. It’s part of Brutsaert’s job to remind caregivers that they’re doing enough and that they need to take care of themselves, too.

For Stacy Cole, a nurse case manager, working at BHS is all about getting the opportunity to advocate for patients’ needs and working with a supportive team. Cole said, “It is a partnership and an untold understanding amongst every one of us that at any moment this may be a person’s last time to listen to soothing words, feel a gentle touch, or just be present so they are not alone.” 

Of course, working in hospice is difficult, but in ways that some may not expect. When those who are dying come to terms with their prognosis, it’s often the loved ones who are not quite ready to accept it.

“Comprehension of what is best for the patient may be skewed based on myths associated with symptom management,” Cole said. It’s part of her job to always put the patients’ wishes first, even if the family isn’t quite ready to accept the inevitable.

Keith Seckel, an RN and a certified hospice and palliative care nurse, has been working in hospice for almost 10 years. In a TEDx Talk Seckel gave in Salem a few years ago, he described the importance of conversation at the end of life. Much like Cole, Seckel sees family members struggle with the inevitability of their loved one’s death. When talking to a family member of one of his clients, “Walt,” Seckel explored what it means to want someone to live longer. 

Seckel asked, “How old would be old enough? Well, we agreed that old enough isn’t ours to decide. And he learned to be okay with that, because Walt was okay with that. And because living a full life—that is in our control. For Walt, at 98, that meant telling his stories and being with his family and he got to do all of that, and he didn’t run from death. So often, we do, though.” 

One of Seckel’s greatest realizations has been that people rarely change at the end of their lives. This is why we should all start thinking about how we want to live our lives now because there may not be as much time as we’d like. Seckel said, “The most challenging aspect of this work is seeing the potential for healing (emotional, relational, spiritual; if not physical) peter out until there really is no time left, and knowing that people die the way they lived.”

When you work in hospice, there are many things you can’t fix. Brutsaert confirms this. “A big part of the end-of-life experience is simply not fixable. It just is. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to be in that space with someone, as one fellow human being with another. You listen to their story and try to understand it, really get what that experience is like for them – knowing that at one point you yourself will face the end of your life, knowing that many before us have gone through it, too.”  

For Those Left Behind
While they primarily work with clients from Linn and Benton counties, BHS also provides services for Lane, Lincoln, and Polk counties as well. If you’ve experienced a loss, consider joining one of their weekly Grief Education and Support groups. Share your experience and support others as they remember those they’ve lost. If you’re not ready to meet in person, you can listen to their podcast. Hosted by Bob Madar, the End of Life Podcast Series highlights many voices of hospice, including patients, employees, and volunteers. For those of you looking to make a difference in the lives of others, BHS is always looking for volunteers. Perhaps you can change the way you live now by helping others fully explore their final moments.

If you experience a life-limiting illness but don’t qualify for hospice, BHS would still like to help. Through their free program, Transitions, members of the community get connected to resources, companionship, education about their illness, and receive help with errands and light housekeeping. For more information about all of the BHS programs and to listen to their podcasts, visit www.bentonhospice.org.

Check out Keith Seckel’s TED Talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDZ7pcgdbb0&feature=youtu.be .

By Anika Lautenbach

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