Two-day training session attended by a variety of interested individuals

It’s a natural and (to a certain extent) healthy instinct to fear death. But it’s not healthy to deny the inevitable truth that we and our loved ones will die one day.

In cooperation with Age Friendly Cold Lake, the Alberta Hospice Palliative Care Association (AHPCA) presented a two-day workshop earlier this month on Palliative Care Training for the Community.

Among the messages is that palliative care is not necessarily end-of-life care; a person with a terminal illness or condition may live for several years, and live well. But at the same time, their needs—medical, physical, emotional, spiritual—will be different than those of someone who is not in a palliative situation.

And the same is true for those who care for them. Family and friends, medical professionals, healthcare staff, and others are better able to help if they can understand what their loved one, patient, or client is experiencing and what care they need.

AHPCA program coordinators Betty George and Iska Hollman were in Cold Lake to provide the training. Approximately 30 people attended. Many were individuals who wanted to learn more, and several healthcare workers and helping professionals also came for the training.

The sessions were part of a rural Alberta outreach program funded by the province.

“They gave us a grant to get out to the rural communities, partner with places like Age Friendly or FCSS or hospice societies, and open it up to the public to talk about death and dying,” George said. “We know that is something that is happening to everybody at some point, but where do we have a safe place to talk about it?

“This is a safe place for people to share their emotions, share their story, share their fears, but get some education,” she said. “Often we are in the position of a caregiver where we’re supporting somebody, or as a volunteer who wants to spend time supporting people at end of life.

“We might think that’s really scary, but with some education it can be a most beautiful experience.”

By the end of March, George and Hollman will have visited 16 communities over the course of the past year. Their next visit in the northeast region will be in Vegreville in February.

Hollman says some material may be widely-known, but there are gaps in people’s understanding. And, she says, there aren’t many places to ask questions and have an open discussion about death and dying.

“We talk about bereavement and grief afterwards,” she said, “giving space for curiosity as well. We have a lot of amazing questions that are just curiosity based, because there’s really nowhere else to go and kind of find these answers in some communities.”

In palliative and hospice situations, the focus is quite rightly on the person who is facing a terminal prognosis. But caregivers also face the pain that comes with loss. Hollman said it’s important to acknowledge the difficulties faced by both.

“They’re two very different dynamics. And they’re kind of playing together but against each other at the same time, because we’re trying to create dialogue, to build an understanding of how can we support somebody when we’re really not sure what they’re going through,” she said.

“Both Betty and I advocate, let’s open dialogue up instead of trying to close it in because we’re such a death-denying society. We see a lot of people that aren’t reaching out for help and are just kind of keeping it to themselves. We really want to foster both aspects, the caregiver and the person that is journeying with their illness, to be able to express and be open to the community and to others as well.”

Cathy Aust, manager of program development for Age Friendly Cold Lake, says palliative and hospice care training is an important part of building a truly age-friendly community.

“Age Friendly is committed to providing services and programs to vulnerable, isolated seniors, the underserved. And this is a really good way,” Aust said. 

“A lot of our clients don’t have families. They don’t have that support. And they look to see where they can get that support,” she said. “We believe at Age Friendly Cold Lake that nobody should die alone.” 

Aust said that five Age Friendly clients died just in December. 

“Right now we’re looking for some volunteers who will go and do the visits in the hospital and sit with our clients in the hospital, and be able to be there for them,” she said. “And I think that from the response that we’ve gotten here today, the education they’ve received from the last two days, that we’re really positioned well to be able to offer that.”

Aust acknowledges that of course illness, death, and bereavement aren’t excusive to older people. But life itself is a terminal condition: the longer you live, the more aware you are that there’s less time left.

And it’s not just the older person, but their family as well, who must remember that a lifetime is a finite quantity.

“There’s much more involved than just the passing. It’s making sure wills are completed, Power of Attorney is completed, that affairs are in order. It’s very challenging and emotional, and [being ready] is just best for everybody,” she said. 

“In the grief group that we’ve been running, people in their thirties would come saying ‘I don’t know what to do. My husband was just killed at work. I’ve got his welding truck I’ve got to deal with. He still owes money on it. I got this, I got that, we’ve got kids.’

“They just weren’t prepared. There was nothing in place,” Aust said. “So we really try to advocate at all times that you should really be prepared with not only the basics of what’s required for end of life, but your personal choices for end of life, too.”

George said community awareness about palliative and hospice care can lead to community action.

“We’ve seen communities in Alberta that have worked together to raise funds because they’re passionate about having hospice beds,” she said. “That could be a bed in a long term care home, it could be a standalone hospice, an actual physical hospice. They have fundraised. 

“That is a big commitment, and it takes the whole community. It’s not a small board of directors that can do it. It really takes a community, if they’re passionate about palliative care and end of life care, to make something like that happen.”

(Above) Approximately 30 people attended the two-day session.
(Below) Iska Hollman and Betty George presented the material on behalf of AHPCA JEFF GAYE