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Hospice Care

How Death Doulas Are Changing End-of-Life Care for the Better

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10,000 Baby Boomers will reach age 65 each day over the next 15 years. Each of them will have to face the death of someone they love: a parent, sibling, partner, or friend. Of course, many of them will also have to face their own death. 

Our healthcare system already struggles to care for the dying in the ways they deserve. There are gaps in service throughout the journey from diagnosis to death, particularly when it comes to dealing with the emotional and psychological aspects of facing death. And those gaps are going to grow over the next couple of decades. 

A support pro

To fill those gaps, a whole new category of caregiver has emerged: end-of-life doulas. Based on the approach of birth doulas, this relatively new form of caregiving focuses on quality of life. Also referred to as death doulas or death coaches, these caregivers support a dying person and their loved ones emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually through the dying process. 

The traditional approaches to a terminal illness focus on medical intervention and treatment. While that makes sense at the beginning of an illness, it can cause unnecessary suffering when those treatments are continued when they are futile — as is too often the case. In the end, that approach robs people of the quality of life in the time they have left. 

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Our medical system just has difficulty turning off the spigot of treatment. When it finally does, its idea of comfort care is mostly about the management of the physical symptoms of dying. As a result, too many people live in emotional pain and fear as they approach their death. 

Dying with dignity

End-of-life doulas change the traditional narrative of dying by offering the dying person an opportunity to review their life story, focus on its meaning, and address the unfinished business they would regret leaving behind when they die. These doulas support a dying person’s wishes for the atmosphere around them and the involvement of loved ones. 

Doulas use music, touch, guided imagery, and even ritual to bring deeper meaning and greater ease to the dying process. They also help families with basic care, and offer them compassion and guidance in the midst of emotional turmoil. 

In the end, doulas transform the dying experience into one that contains tenderness and beauty, alongside the inevitable pain and suffering.

Henry Fersko-Weiss, Executive Director, International End of Life Doula Association, [email protected]

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