Tag Archives: dying

‘Driving Miss Norma’ teaches valuable lessons on aging, caregiving, dying

I haven’t been shy about my professed loved and admiration for “Miss Norma” Bauerschmidt, who at 90, became an internet sensation when, instead of undergoing grueling treatment for uterine cancer while dealing with the recent death of her husband, she told her doctor, “I’m hitting the road.”

Driving Miss Norma: One Family’s Journey Saying “Yes” to Living, a book about the final, amazing year of Norma’s life, is now available, and I highly recommend it.

Norma joined her son and daughter-in-law in a motor home for an epic trip around the U.S., where she was welcomed like a celebrity everywhere she stopped. While Norma’s symptoms were managed quite well on the road, her cancer progressed and she died on September 30, 2016.

Her story has touched millions around the world, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

Norma’s story touches upon many topics that are near and dear to my heart. First, the “treatment without question” mentality that pervades the American health care system got turned on its head here. The doctor was taken aback by Norma’s reaction at first, but admitted that his own treatment recommendation would have set up Norma on a long road of recovery that she may not have survived. Instead of spending months in a skilled nursing facility recovering from major surgery and being sick from chemotherapy, Norma chose quality over quantity for the remainder of her life.

The highs and lows of caregiving are poignantly and honestly discussed in this book. Norma’s son and daughter-in-law don’t shy away from the challenges that family caregiving poses, which are only complicated when mixed with an unpredictable life on the road. Norma’s son and daughter-in-law weren’t experienced caregivers before taking on Norma, and their “nomadic by choice” lifestyle had to be adapted to Norma’s abilities and health challenges. Ultimately it was an experience that they wouldn’t trade for all the world, but I appreciate their openness in discussing their caregiving experience.

What was most surprising to me was how, according to her son, Norma was not known as the “wild gal” that we saw on Facebook who would make funny faces for the camera or who took delight in quirky tourist spots. Norma, a quiet, stable presence in the family, had been content to live in her husband’s shadow. But once on the road, a new side of Norma emerged. This may be the most important lesson of all in the book. It is never too late to find oneself.

By late summer, it became apparent that Norma’s trip through this life would be coming to a close soon. Being on the road presented some unique challenges, but Norma passed on as comfortably as is possible, surrounded by love and fulfilled in a year’s worth of joyous sights and experiences. For everyone seeking that elusive “good death,” I think after reading this book you will conclude that Norma had a good one.

Obviously, not all of us have adult children who could accommodate such an epic life’s end journey. What we can take from the book is that when faced with what could have been an overwhelmingly depressing moment in her life, coping with the death of her husband and a cancer diagnosis, Norma chose to embrace optimism. Norma chose adventure, to let go of any old grievances and open her heart to new people and experiences. One of the catchphrases for Norma’s journey is, “Say yes to living.”

That’s a lesson we could all take to heart.

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Getting creative with dying

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John Evans/Freeimages

Thanks to those who participated in my caregiver survey. The OpenIDEO end of life challenge is going through its final review, and top ideas will be announced in the coming week. Regardless of the outcome, the experience has been educational and inspirational.

I spend quite a bit of time on this blog sharing my frustrations with the health care system, but the good news is there are a lot of compassionate, smart people out there who are working on solutions. They want to improve the experience of those nearing the end of life, the death process itself and the caregiver’s well-being.

The ideas generated in this challenge were truly awe-inspiring. Some of my favorite ideas included musicians writing and playing songs for those in hospice inspired by the dying person’s life. I loved this idea because not only would it offer comfort to the dying, but also would be a memento the family could keep forever.

I also was inspired by the “Leave a Wish” idea, which would allow you to leave any message you want for family members after you have died. It could be something like hiking to a favorite spot to mark a holiday, or making sure your loved ones fulfill their own goals, like writing a book or running a marathon. I loved the way this idea could allow you to connect with your loved ones even after you are gone.

Other ideas included green burial options, documenting a loved one’s life stories and encouraging greater discussion of end-of-life wishes.

There were so many wonderful, innovative ideas that I can’t go into them all here but you can check out the full list on OpenIDEO.

It’s reassuring to know that there are good people out there who want to make dying not something painful and miserable, but a final phase of life in this world that can be meaningful and inspirational.

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My essay about dying at home posted on The Caregiver Space

I’ve been reading posts on The Caregiver Space for quite some time, but never had time to submit my own writing.

Now that I find myself in a post-caregiving phase of my life, I’m really trying to focus on writing a series of essays that have been stewing in my brain for awhile.

hospital bed

Last week, The Caregiver Space published my essay, “Why dying at home is not all it’s cracked up to be” and the reception has been quite positive. The post was published on The Caregiver Space Facebook page where it generated several hundred likes and many heartfelt comments.

The essay is not an attack on hospice care workers; I admire most of them and think they do a phenomenal job. Hospice care is truly a calling in my opinion, and one can see the benefit of the loving, compassionate care they provide.

My essay is a look at dying at home vs. dying in a facility from the family caregiver’s perspective. After my dad died in a skilled nursing facility, I was all for my mother dying at home. But the reality was a bit different. It was an emotionally brutal experience that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. That’s not to say that her death would have necessarily been better in a hospital, it would have been difficult in a different way.

My main point of the essay is to bring awareness to family caregivers in rural areas. They may find that the local home hospice agency is understaffed and overworked, and cannot provide the around-the-clock care that is often touted by die-at-home advocates. People should be aware and prepare themselves for taking on more of the nursing duties of caregiving. If they feel they cannot do it themselves, they should seek out help from family, friends or professional caregivers.

If you have the time, please read the essay and let me know what you think. Also, please share with anyone who you think could benefit from the information.

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Grief, relief and regret

As anyone knows who has lost a loved one, your grief doesn’t always progress through the designated stages like it’s described in books. Many of these self-help manuals make it clear that there is no one correct path, but it’s still something you have to experience for yourself to understand.

To all of you who left lovely comments, thank you so much. It does help to know you are not alone.

The first few days after my mother’s death were fueled by an adrenaline rush, to power through and focus on completing the necessary tasks. My goal was to get home as soon as possible.

Mom was a jokester, and would want to be remembered with smiles and laughter, not tears.

Mom was a jokester, and would want to be remembered with smiles and laughter, not tears.

I returned home and took a few days off from work to get settled in and recharge my batteries. I spent a lot of time receiving “purr therapy” from the cats. I went on walks. I got a massage.

Then I returned to work and the fast pace of my daily duties left me little time for reflection.

So here I am, 10 days after my mom’s death, and more than grief or sadness, I’ve experienced moments of relief and regret.

There is a sense of relief at how quiet my phone is now. Over the last year or so, I had talked to Mom daily on the phone, and over the last few months, she was calling me multiple times per day sometimes, usually to remark about her pain or lack of effective medication. I began to dread seeing her face when it would pop up on my phone, signaling a call from her.

Mom was about the only person to call me on the phone. (I prefer written communication whenever possible.) My battery has dipped low a couple of times, but I wasn’t frantic about making sure I was available by phone because at this moment, for the first time in several years, I am not managing the care of an ailing parent. There is relief in not feeling like I’m on call 24/7.

The regrets pop up in scenes played out from the last month, when I was taking care of Mom. I think what I can take away from these flashbacks is to not get so lost in the necessary caregiving tasks that you forget the simple things, like trying to make it possible for a loved one to enjoy a moment basking in the sunlight, or having a spoon of ice cream. There may be risks involved in trying to make a dying person happy, but looking back, they are risks I wish I had taken.

What lessons have you learned from grieving for a loved one?

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My mother can finally rest in peace

My mother died Thursday morning.

It was a tough last few weeks, and the last hours were frankly brutal.

I can only hope she wasn’t in as much discomfort as she seemed, despite being given copious medications for pain and anxiety.

Mom loved her time in the Navy.

Mom loved her time in the Navy.

The hospice nurses and myself kept assuring Mom that it was ok to let go when she was ready. I felt like there was some internal struggle going on in there, despite the fact that she told me repeatedly that she was ready to go and was not afraid of death. She certainly did not want to linger in the state she did, non-responsive, devoid of her lively and happy personality, unable to eat or drink, and completely dependent upon me and the nurses for every task of living.

Maybe Mom’s spirit was just fighting with her stubborn body, and that determined heart of hers. The hospice nurses were quite surprised that Mom continued to live, considering the state of the rest of her body, but her heart and vital signs continued to be good. I was afraid, for her sake and mine, that it would continue to beat strong for much longer than it did. I was at her bedside when she drew her last breath, and I felt her heart beat slow, weaken and then come to a complete stop.

As you loyal followers know, this blog exists in part over guilt I had about my dad’s death, and how I wasn’t present when he died. I know being here to take care of my mom, and being present for her passing was the right thing to do.

But of course, there is a high price to pay on a psychic level by experiencing something so intense as a loved one dying. There are things I wish I hadn’t seen, tasks I wish I didn’t have to do. Time will no doubt provide a different perspective on the experience.

The important thing for now is that Mom was well-taken care of and she did not die alone.

As for what was beyond this life, Mom often said that, “It’s a good place and it’s a right place.”

I hope she’s right.

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Playing the waiting game with Death

My mother’s health took a big turn for the worse this week.

The hospice nurse expects her to pass in days, maybe a week, though her heart is very strong, so she could last longer.

Mother's Day

Mother’s Day

For her sake, and mine, I hope that the suffering is not prolonged.

She is now totally bedridden, somewhat delirious and a new pain complaint has popped up the last two days. She now complains of severe head and neck pain. The nurse cannot figure out what may be causing it. It is unlikely that the colon cancer, if it has returned, spread to her brain, though it is a possibility.

But the morphine is not really touching the head pain, even when dosed hourly. She is so “zonked out” by the pain meds yet still is pointing to her head and grimacing. That is tough to watch.

Mom’s face has been taken over by that ghoulish death mask. Her eyes are starting to look beyond.

But her heart continues to beat hard and strong in her emaciated chest.

In one of her lucid moments, my mother asked what had happened to her. And to that, I had no good answer.

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Dying with dignity shouldn’t be so difficult

The last week my mom’s health has taken a steep decline. Barring some miraculous turnaround, it is fair to say she is actively dying.

Hard to believe this photo was taken just a little over a month ago.

Hard to believe this photo was taken just a little over a month ago.

While I have prepared myself for this moment, and have seen it coming for awhile, what I didn’t necessarily expect was how difficult it would be to just allow someone to die in peace and comfort.

I literally had to run all over town just to get prescription paid medicine for my mom. I know new regulations on controlled substances took effect this year, but frankly, if an addict wants narcotic pills they are going to get them no matter what. In the meantime, those who are legitimately in pain have to suffer.

The doctor made me go in person to pick up the prescription. They said they required a family member to pick it up, even the nurses at the home care agency my mom uses were forbidden from picking it up. Guess it’s good I just arrived in town! There is no way my mom could have made it to the doctor’s office.

There are plenty of pain-ridden people who live alone, what do these poor souls do?

And while I don’t necessarily want my mother to waste away in a hospital setting, I am surprised that the doctors keep sending her home from the ER. Uncontrollable pain, emaciated, can barely ambulate … I mean, geez, what does it take to be admitted to the hospital these days? The doctor told her she didn’t qualify for an inpatient stay under the new strict guidelines.

So we are starting hospice, but her overworked doctor has to sign off on it. I’m not too hopeful that it will be done quickly. While her doctor was off last week, my mom had no pain medicine and being cut off cold turkey really sent her health reeling into a death spiral.

So much red tape and regulations are getting in the way of treating people who are suffering with some form of dignity.

Family caregivers shouldn’t be left feeling helpless and devastated as they watch their loved one suffer needlessly.

I hope we can work together to advocate for better end-of-life treatment.

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