Hospice without Physical Contact
Since Sierra Hospice first started back in 1981 the phsyical connection between our volunteers and patients, as well as their families, has been a major part of what we do. There is no real substitute for human contact, and in helping to bring patients to a calm and peaceful end we are always relying on our ability to connect both mentally and physically. A touch to the cheek, a hug, or just holding someones hand can make a huge difference. During the COVID-19 crisis, though, we are not able to do that, and so we are left without many of the tools that help us bring patients some level of comfort and connection as they move towards the end.
We have, like so many others, been forced to reexamine the way in which we conduct our program. Home visits are more rare now, not just to protect the hospice volunteers but to make sure that there is no spread of the virus inside the home of our patients. Hospice is all about keeping the patient in the home. These are people who have chosen to end their treatments and to instead want to be at home, with friends, family, and loved ones. Yet having people come over to the home, even those we cherish the most, is a risk in these times. And having our volunteers in the house can cause additional stress of the risk of infection because all contact can risk being a spreader of this terrible disease.
So as people have to chose which friends and family members can come and by physically present, as they choose which caregivers will be in the home, as they choose which medical professionals and volunteers will arrive at their door they know they are limiting that vital contact that is so important at the end of life. They know that this is a terrible choice. They know that it isn’t fair.
Human contact can help us in so many ways. For babies touch may be essential to growth and health as they age*, and the benefits of touch can persist throughout the lifetime and help with health outcomes as “studies show that touching patients with Alzheimer’s disease can have huge effects on getting them to relax, make emotional connections with others, and reduce their symptoms of depression.” Touch is also associated with better learning, decreased diseases and stronger immune systems, economic gain, greater trust, and overall better wellbeing.
Much of what hospice is, and what many may not understand about programs such as the one at Sierra Hospice, is that hospice is more about being there for the family and the patient than anything else. People often call and ask about what doctors or nurses we can send to help their loved ones who have chosen hospice and we tell them that hospice is about what happens after you stop seeking treatment and so we do not rely on medical professionals as we are just here to be there for them. We work closely with hospitals, doctors, nurses, caregivers, and other medical professionals all of the time to make sure that there is a quality of care and that all that needs to be done to make our patients comfortable is being done. Yet this is a volunteer hospice, our purpose is to be there for the patients and the families and during the time of COVID-19 we cannot be there in the way that we wish we could, in the way we know we should, be there for our patients, and this is a problem being faced by hospices all over right now. We are still here for them, and their families, and we will do whatever we can to help ease the transition and work with the family during this time, yet until we are able to resume touching, resume contact, resume care that is both physically and emotionally there for our patients we are operating with less than our full toolbox.
This crisis has, perhaps ironically, touched everyone. We are all doing whatever we can to get through it. Our volunteers are truly amazing and have continued to go above and beyond for our patients even during this time. We wish we could do more. We want to be there with our patients and their families and we cannot always be there these days. This time will pass, we will get back to a world in which touch is no longer a risk but rather a part of everyday life again. Until then though we are struggling through it as well as we can along with everyone else.