For all our efforts to prolong life, with the right support, the final chapter can be a time of grace — even joy — for patients and their loved ones and for those caring for them.
What that “right” way can mean with Jewish patients is the subject of a forum — open to lay and professional people — that will take place on Monday evening, Oct. 18, at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains.
The featured speaker will be Dr. Beth Popp, director of the Palliative Care Program at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. She will be joined by an array of speakers, including a rabbi, a hospice worker, a social worker, a lay volunteer, and a health-care facility owner.
The event is being hosted by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and sponsored by its chaplaincy and Women’s Philanthropy social action committees, together with AristaCare Health Services, a major funder of the federation’s chaplaincy program, and a number of other health-care providers.
Debbie Rosenwein, the federation’s director of planning and allocations, said, “This is the first time that Central NJ, working together with other facilities in the community, is offering an educational forum on hospice as a modality of care. There is tremendous learning potential, and it is an opportunity to meet other community members and professionals working in this field.”
The time to learn about hospice and palliative care, Popp told NJ Jewish News, is not when there is an acute situation. “It’s hard to learn when you are exhausted, emotionally spent, and frightened due to a loved one’s illness, which is when most people are taking ‘Hospice 101,’” she said. “Being prepared before there is a need, and learning about what resources are available to you and your family should a serious illness strike is an important step to meeting the challenge in the way that will best serve the needs of your family.”
And if you are lucky enough to never need that information, she added, “you can be a resource to a friend or neighbor.”
Popp has been involved over the past 15 years in efforts to improve access to hospice and palliative care services in the Orthodox Jewish community in the NY area, using a grant from UJA-Federation of New York to the Metropolitan Jewish Health System in Brooklyn.
Popp started two hospital-based palliative care programs, served as clinical director for a third, and has worked with almost all the hospice programs in the five boroughs of New York City. She has also served as a consultant on the local and regional level to hospitals and hospices developing such programs. She has been on the faculty of SUNY-Downstate, New York Medical College, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and New York University School of Nursing.
Hospice and palliative care can be enormously helpful, Popp said, but — some 40 years after the first programs were developed — there are still gross misconceptions about them that prevent some families from considering using them.
“The field of hospice and palliative medicine has changed a great deal,” she said. “Our medical knowledge about how to care for patients with serious illness is evolving rapidly. Hospice programs may not meet some patients’ needs, but patients and their families need to make that decision based on accurate information, not on inaccurate assumptions and misconceptions, or even on an experience with a hospice program five or 10 years ago.”
On the panel with her will be AristaCare chief executive officer Sydney Greenberger. While AristaCare is not a hospice provider as such, when needed it brings in professionals to provide hospice services for patients. Greenberger said that the big challenge facing patients and their family members is making the decision to enroll in hospice.
“Simply put,” he told NJJN, “many patients and families tend to equate the signing of their hospice documents as signing their death warrants.” In part that is because to receive the Medicare-funded benefit, your doctor and the hospice medical director have to certify that the patient is terminally ill and has no more than six months to live if the illness “runs its normal course.” And that — Greenberger pointed out — is a big “if.” Many people declared terminal take a turn for the better, perhaps helped by the spiritual and emotional support hospice care provides.
He pointed out that the Vidui (prayer of confession) usually recited by a rabbi on behalf of a Jewish patient on his or her deathbed — or by the patient himself, if possible — contains the words “May it be your will that You heal me with total recovery.”
Greenberger said he hopes that he and his fellow panelists will be able to assure those attending of the benefits of hospice care, and “most importantly, that signing onto hospice does not equate to signing one’s ‘death warrant.’”