Two months ago, I lost my mother after her ten years’ long battle with the debilitating and progressive disease called dementia. On that first night after she passed, I got a message from a friend saying, “As you settle down to spend the first night without her in this world….” These words struck a chord with me. As people poured in to condole, and said, “you must have been prepared,” I honestly didn’t know if I was actually prepared, even though I knew it was inevitable. You’re never really prepared for the emptiness the loss of a loved one leaves. Yet, awareness helps us deal with this testing time.
For those who can afford to hire help or get their elderly loved one treated by trained healthcare practitioners, the blow is relatively cushioned, and the biggest struggle is the emotional pain one goes through to witness them fading away. This is when you learn the word ‘palliative’ care. “Sadly, less than 1 per cent Pakistanis have access to specialty palliative care,” says Dr Atif Waqar, Geriatrician and Section Head for palliative Care at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi.
Geriatrics and Palliative care, as he explains, are two different sub-sections of medical care. “Geriatrics is care and treatment of the elderly, while palliative care is aimed at relief and prevention of suffering for both the patients as well as their families. Palliative care is not necessarily end of life care; that is a common misconception that sometimes even healthcare providers have,” he explains. Palliative care, then, is a more holistic approach. “It is actually all about living, not death. However, if all treatment options have been tried and exhausted, then palliative care does involve end of life or hospice care.
Thus, we can say that all end-of-life care does come under palliative care but all palliative care is not end of life care.” Palliative care is a shift in focus where medical practitioners try to palliate the symptoms. Studies show that terminally ill patients actually live longer with holistic palliative care rather than with aggressive treatment.
As a son and caregiver, Afaq Ahmed, who lost his mother a few years earlier and his father just six weeks ago, has had to make some tough choices along with his siblings. He describes the painful experience of seeing his father, who loved to eat, refusing to eat due to dementia. “He would purse his lips tightly, and even if we managed to put something in his mouth, he kept the food in for a long time,” he says. The disease progressed, and he shares that it was a very tough decision when they decided that they wouldn’t use [aggressive] means to prolong his agony.
“Doctors and physicians are trained to save lives, which is why sometimes they use invasive means to keep the patient alive, but end up prolonging their suffering,” says Dr Waqar, and shares the questions that palliative care doctors put in front of the patients’ families. “Questions like ‘What would your loved one have wanted? Would they have wanted to live with this quality of life in a state of complete dependency? Would they have liked to be on a ventilator or someone pumping on their chest for CPR when it’s of no benefit? Would they rather choose to pass with dignity?’” What is often seen as defeat, then, by caregivers or physicians, is actually an informed choice.
“Doctors told us to consider if this is the kind of life our father would have wanted. My parents repeatedly used to say that they would not want a life of dependency and they were ready for the transition. We based our decision on the honest answer to that,” says Ahmed. He and his siblings decided to not force feed their father, neither by mouth nor through means such as a nasogastric (NG) tube.
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However this does not imply that all medications and treatment is discontinued. According to Waqar, intravenous fluids and antibiotics are actually therapeutic and if they help alleviate symptoms they should be continued till the end. Pain relieving medicines, like Morphine, are an option at this stage.
“Morphine is on WHO’s List of Essential Medicines that should be available because it is everyone’s right to be relieved of pain. But in Pakistan limited hospitals are given very specific and limited quotas. We strongly urge the concerned drug regulatory and health authorities to make it available to trained medical practitioners,” says Dr Waqar.
Ahmed and the family did use last resort pain relieving medications to ease his father’s pain in the last few days. “These medicines are not easily available but you can get them through the hospital or doctor under whose treatment your loved one is.”
It is not, however, easy to predict when it is time to let go. “Prognostication, or an estimation of survival, varies from illness to illness. It is both a science and an art. The variables differ from person to person. Doctors run tests to determine the actual situation,” says Dr Waqar. In his opinion, estimation is much easier in terminal stage cancer, for example, but not so easy in neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.
“Sometimes end stage patients surprise you and bounce back. There are dips, plateaus and peaks in their condition. However, when we see a steady decline in these four areas — functional, clinical, nutritional and cognitive — we know that the patient is approaching the end.” You see your loved one becoming increasingly dependent for even small chores, from being on the wheelchair to being bed-bound, and sleeping most of the day.
“They eventually stop eating; it starts with a decrease in taking solids but goes onto difficulty in even swallowing liquids. This is a natural process towards ‘transition’ which we commonly know as death. When the organs begin to shut down, the caloric requirement becomes lesser and lesser,” explains the doctor, adding that the family often thinks they are starving, which actually they are not; they no longer need that much nutrition. Caregivers attempt to force feed them which does more harm than good as the food ends up going in the lungs and aspiration pneumonia can develop.
In a lot of cases, the patient suddenly begins to show improvement or a burst of energy in the last few weeks or months. “That is actually the calm before the storm. This burst of energy helps them finish unfinished business. These facts are scientifically proven and are not hocus pocus,” Dr Waqar says. In his opinion, people in their end stage have very strong awareness about the upcoming transition. Patients are known to experience visitations of their loved ones who have already passed on and are now beckoning them. Near Death Awareness (NDA) is part of the dying process but caregivers often confuse it with delirium. Some patients who can articulate their experiences communicate what they are going through; others, like patients of advanced dementia, may not be able to.
The role of the caregivers, whether they are family members or paid staff, is one that is both painstaking and rewarding. Zaiba Emanuelle, a certified nurse in Karachi, works with elderly patients and has seen a surge in the number of nurses being employed in homes for the elderly. In her experience, patients are easier to handle compared to families of the patients. “The family keeps interrogating us. I understand that they have to do it, but it’s not easy dealing with them,” says Zaiba. “I have learnt that to deal with elderly patients, you have to understand them, and treat them with as much gentleness as one would treat children. It’s all about patience and flexibility.”
As a caregiver, I have learnt tremendously about life and death because of this sojourn on the path of dementia with my mother. I have learnt about what it means to be an elderly person in the twilight years of life, or to be a caregiver. Caring for the elderly is not just an act of love. It is a skill that one acquires over time, whether you are family or a paid caregiver. It is an upward learning curve, and the only way out is through.
When senior citizens are not a priority
Expecting specialised geriatric care might be too ambitious for the average Pakistani who sometimes does not even have a comfortable home or a devoted caregiver. “The numbers of neglected and abandoned senior citizens have escalated, and the reasons are many,” says Faisal Edhi of the Edhi Foundation that has been taking care of abandoned and underprivileged elderly since inception.
He feels that the dismantling of the joint family system, urbanisation, the thrust on industries, and the increase in population — all this has left families with little time to care for their elderly. “The government needs to face this reality and think of setting up old-age homes in peri-urban areas and outskirts of cities; this would be a much more economical option compared to hospitals. But senior citizens are not the priority in an already failing service sector,” he says.
In 2014, both Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Sindh provincial assemblies came up with laws guarding interests of the elderly. The laws are ambitious. Sindh Senior Citizen Welfare Act, 2014, aims at lodging establishments, free geriatric and medical services, 25 per cent concession in all private medical centres and 25 per cent discount on purchase of essential commodities to name a few. However, what is missing is the implementation. Quality care for the elderly requires a steady stream of money, something not many Pakistani families can afford.