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Chautauqua class tackles the challenges and opportunities of caring for aging loved ones

Having a conversation with loved ones about end of life decisions is never easy. A two-part Chautauqua workshop offers the tools necessary to tackle this difficult discussion.
Having a conversation with loved ones about end of life decisions is never easy. A two-part Chautauqua workshop offers the tools necessary to tackle this difficult discussion.
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We are not having the conversations we need to have around end of life decisions. That’s why three of St. Kate’s faculty from different graduate school disciplines —nursing, theology and organizational leadership — teamed up to develop a two-part class “Being Present to Aging Loved Ones: Essential Conversations around Living Well (part one) and Dying Well (part two).”

The class is one of over three dozen offered next week during St. Catherine University’s third annual Summer Chautauqua, August 5–8.

Spearheaded by Bill McDonough, associate professor of theology, the concept for the class started with a discussion about the difficulties of facing end-of-life issues.

“We were all baby-boomers sitting around the table talking about the same thing. My dad died 5 years ago. We just helped my mom move into another Presbyterian Homes place. I come from a good Catholic family, but we’re American enough that we don’t really face these questions,” says McDonough.

From the beginning, the class took an intentionally inter-disciplinary approach to address emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

“I’m a theological ethicist — and so we thought about getting our students in interdisciplinary conversation. Why not have master’s students in theology and master's students in nursing talk with each other about ethical issues facing Catholic people at the end of their lives?” he says.

Using the Chautauqua class as a starting point, McDonough hopes to foster on-going collaboration among the disciplines in St. Kate’s graduate programs, as well as with its community partners.

From a healthcare perspective, multi-discipline approach is important, says Margaret Pharris, professor and associate dean for nursing, and one of the session’s presenters.

“People facing health challenges have better outcomes when they are cared for by an interprofessional team who can collaborate and draw on each other’s professional expertise and strengths to provide patient and family-centered care,” she explains.

This two-part workshop will provide practical support for adults who are caring for their aging parents, utilizing a set of practices around patience, compassion and hope.

It’s time to get real

Healthcare directives are addressed in part two of the workshop, and the importance for families to muster the courage for candid discussion.Anne Denny

While 85 percent of Americans express the desire to die at home, 80 percent end up dying in institutions, with 1 in 5 in intensive care units. This stark reality is spelled out in My Voice, My Choice: A Practical Guide to Writing a Meaningful Healthcare Directive by Anne Elizabeth Denny, one of the session’s presenters.

“One of the reasons to have a healthcare directive is to ensure you receive all of the care and only the care that you want,” says Denny, who is founder and CEO of Directives by Design.

Nearly half of us will require someone else to make healthcare choices on our behalf, says Denny. Too often, families are unprepared and are thrown into turmoil as a result. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“It’s a highly emotional time and very charged. Creating a thoughtful plan not only helps you have peace of mind for yourself but it also helps your family stay together and focused on loving and supporting you and one another as opposed to arguing,” Denny says.

She also explains that a healthcare directive is not just about end of life health decisions, but also about shaping the legacy you leave. The key to helping your parents through this process is to go through it yourself first.

“If you’ve wrestled through what kind of end of life preferences you have, then you become far more empathetic and far more credible when you talk with your parents about this,” says Denny.

Still nervous about broaching the topic with your parents? During the session, Denny will offer practical tips on the dos and don’ts of initiating the conversation.

Hospice as a philosophy of care

In building a meaningful directive, it’s helpful to understand what resources are available, for instance, the comfort care that hospice offers as an alternative to aggressive treatments.

In his 19-year career with Fairview Home Care and Hospice, Steven Sims, manager of Hospice Program Services, has seen that far too often, families start hospice care too late to take full advantage of this service.

“With a longer stay, we have more time to work with the spiritual aspects, the emotional support of the family, the care of the patient, helping with pain and symptom management,” Sims explains.

“Once that’s under control, their energy goes into interacting with each other rather than the pain or discomfort that they’re dealing with,” he adds. During the workshop, Sims will cover the breadth of services available to patients and families.

Sometime a delay in seeking hospice care is a result of the misconception that hospice is a place that the dying are sent.

“They don’t have to move to a place to receive hospice care. Some people are in their own private residences, some are in assisted living, group homes, nursing homes, we go to wherever they reside,” explains Sims.

Hospice services include visiting doctors and nurses as needed, and a 24-hour nurse hotline to address any trouble that arises in the middle of the night so that patients and their families can stay in a more comfortable environment.

“Hospice is really a philosophy of care. It’s providing comfort care, where the symptoms are managed, and people are cared for and the families are cared for. We bring in different disciplines such as music therapy and massage therapy that really enhance the quality of life for people at the end,” he adds.

Regardless of the length of stay under hospice care, once a loved one has passed, according to Medicare guidelines, families are eligible to receive a year of bereavement services. Fairview offers 13 months of services including one-on-one counseling, family counseling, workshops, retreats and educational sessions, and memorial services.

Class registration

Other Chautauqua class topics this year include health and well-being, leadership and entrepreneurship, religion and social issues, literature and the arts. The four-day event also offers a free documentary screening each day.

Chautauqua is open to alumnae, students, faculty, staff and the greater community.

The cost is $20 per class. For more information or to register, visit

Aug. 1, 2013 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Alumnae/i, Catholic Identity, Faculty, Healthcare, Leadership