The Terrace Hospice Society wants to help normalize conversations about death and dying through an upcoming series of free workshops that will encourage people to consider what type of care they would prefer if they or a loved one is affected by illness or injury in the future.
On August 3 the society will host its first workshop on advanced care planning, a process that gives people the opportunity to reflect on their beliefs, values and wishes for healthcare before the time when they might be unable to make such important decisions for themselves.
Hospice society board members and educators Diana Wood and Sue Skeates attended workshop training in May after being invited to Richmond, B.C. for a one-day session offered by the BC Centre for Palliative Care. The workshops will get the public thinking about these difficult questions and help them put an advanced care plan into motion.
“Thinking about what would happen if you don’t have a voice in your healthcare, who would you like to have as your voice and what would you like them to say?” Skeates said when describing the essence of advanced care planning. “Who do I want to speak for me and what do I want them to say?”
An advanced care plan can be a written or recorded summary of an individual’s beliefs, values and wishes for future healthcare.
“It encourages people to have those conversations with themselves first,” Wood said. “For some people, it’s really important to have music around them. For some, it’s really important to them to have their spiritual counsellors close-by. It’s different things to different people.”
Legislation passed in B.C. on Sept. 1, 2011 made it so that advanced care plans could be legally binding even without getting notarization from a lawyer.
An advanced care plan also does not have to include an advance directive or even a representation agreement, usually referred to as a “living will.” However, if an individual decides to forego having an advance directive, a care plan can inform the person that a doctor chooses – called a substitute decision maker – how they can fulfill the wishes for care made by the patient when they were still capable.
But Wood and Skeates urged people to already have their decision-maker picked out before they reach a point where they can’t make such a choice themselves.
“Having a decision-maker already picked out, it saves the doctors time because they don’t have to go looking for whoever’s going to have to make the decision for this person,” Wood said. “The decision would be made, there’d be no questions asked and everything moves forward easily.”
She went on: “What we’re trying to do is normalize dying because people are so afraid about talking about death,” Wood said. “People don’t readily want to talk about death and dying and it’s as a normal part of life as giving birth.”
Wood said after an individual has had that difficult conversation with themselves, it is important to choose someone – a friend, loved one or family member – who they are confident could carry out their wishes. “Some people are just not cut out to do that kind of thing,” Wood said.
Wood and Skeates said advanced care planning has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight because of an aging baby boomer generation, as well as the new legislation around physician-assisted suicide.
“The people involved in hospice-palliative care are saying ‘Let’s treat the living first.’ This is where our priorities should be,” Skeates said.
The Terrace Hospice Society has approximately 25 volunteers, made up of palliative caregivers, board members and office assistants.
Earlier this month, Wood and Skeates gave an advanced care planning workshop to their volunteers in anticipation of opening up the workshops to the public this August.
The pair has also reached out to Northwest Community College and the University of Northern British Columbia in order to present to nursing and social work students there. “It’s important information for everybody,” Wood said.
They emphasized that it is for everyone, regardless of age.
Wood, for example, told a story about her 23-year-old granddaughter who was in bad car accident a few years ago.
“She was in a really bad car accident and broke four or five vertebrae. She wasn’t unconscious, but she very well could have been,” Wood said. “Anybody 19 and older should be thinking about this.”
Wood also added that based on conversations she has already had with people in the community, she anticipates the workshops will be popular and well-received.
“I just think it’s such a powerful message,” Wood said.
“I think it’s going to go over very, very well.”
After the first session on August 3, workshops will be held on the first Wednesday of each month over the next year. The workshops will be at 10 a.m. in the meeting room of the Terrace Public Library.