Many Hands, Light Work: How Hospice Can Teach Us to Stop Fearing Death


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My grandmother was diagnosed with cancer in late June of 2001.

Her experience of hospice was a revelation. It made me – personally – less fearful of death.

Grandma was dead by the end of July. This is what she wanted – she feared the loss of her quality of life. She was famous for wearing crazy tights and high heels into her eighties. On her way to a party, she would stop to pull up a weed.

I remain convinced she knew she was sick long before she went to see a doctor.

I drove her to her CAT scan. The night before, she stood sideways to me and lifted her shirt to show me her distended stomach. I swallowed hard and said something unhelpful. Something along the lines of it maybe being nothing. (I was unable to resist the platitudes then). She sat down and covered my hand with hers. “Darling,” she said. I looked up. “We know it’s bad.”

Grandma entered hospice care almost immediately. She was the wife of an Episcopal priest/Theology Professor at a liberal arts college. (He had died several years prior). She had been privy to many deaths and now here she was arriving at her own. She seemed resigned. I remember that she was bothered by little things like not knowing what would happen about Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing.

Over the course of days and weeks people who loved her began appearing. Christie Achebe, wife of the writer Chinua Achebe appeared with a huge Nigerian stew I can still taste. There was a lot of food coming into the house.

So too were there offers of help and assistance – rides to places, errands run. People offered to do anything they could to help. One person stopped by to make sure everyone who wanted to get there had been able to – that airfare was not an issue. “Because I can take care of that,” she said and burst into tears.

“Let us know what we can do,” they said. Someone came to weed the garden. People sent flowers.

All those people – all those activist helpers DID so much to make my Grandma’s hospice just exactly the death she would have wanted.

I remember being devastated, but I also remember those weeks as a kind of tragic magic. My far flung family came together. We lived through death together. Old friends brought us food to eat. It was July and my grandparents’ house was right outside a coursing, light-flecked waterfall and the smell of elemental humidity, earth, and water washed us all clean.

The exquisite pain of loss was made immeasurably better by the hospice care Grandma received. The last memory I have of her being conscious was when my cousin arrived with his infant – Grandma’s first great-grandchild. Grandma tried to reach for her infant hand. I remember how my brother, just off a plane from the West Coast, entered the room weeping. Our extended family surrounded Grandma.

We were bolstered by the helping community in such tangible ways.

Hospice nurses gathered us outside. They explained that her breath was slowing down.

They made it very clear that the last sense to go is that of hearing. She can hear you, they kept advising. Don’t forget that she can hear you. I went to her bed. I remembered the very last thing she had said when her f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s were intact (thank you, JD Salinger).

She said: “Our friendship has been one of the great gifts of my life.

When she died, it had been raining and the sun came out. We all went for a walk. We laughed as hard as we cried.

This article originally appeared on and was syndicated by

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For older people, managing the challenge of self-care is a delicate balance. Many geriatric patients are hesitant to ask for or accept financial assistance from friends or family. They worry that they might burden those they love, knowing that those upon whom they rely have their own obligations.

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This coming from Andrew Wilson, M.D., an ER doc in a rural hospital. He speaks without judgment, from a place of compassion. Dr. Wilson reminds us that even those with insurance are not always fully covered. For someone living on a fixed income, even having 80% of these costs covered may still not be enough.

Give InKind asked Dr. Wilson to identify ten things elderly people often need but don’t always get. Sometimes these needs can fall through the cracks, so take this as a checklist and check in with a loved one.


Elderly patients living alone often need help with their pets. Those wishing to assist such a patient would do well to check in with them about pet care and make the necessary arrangements for care, boarding, feeding, etc.


Dental insurance is not comprehensive and access to care is often very limited. As people age and dental care becomes a greater concern. Pain and discomfort is a common complaint among geriatrics. Look to help out with that. Ask about the dental care they are able to access and see whether you can help to provide that.


These very necessary items are not always covered by insurance.

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This is especially relevant for patients with diabetes. Foot care items for someone with diabetes can be healing. They are, however, expensive and sometimes out of reach for patients with a limited income.


Rides to and from medical appointments. Cab rides are a significant expense, especially if the need arises regularly. Check whether services like Lyft and Uber operate near you.

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Train tickets to medical experts. For people with unusual cancers or who require specialized care, living in a rural area can present a challenge. For older patients, a local expert might not be available and the care they need might be located in a city several hours away. Older people people may no longer feel comfortable about driving long distances or maneuvering urban landscapes. Arranging help with transportation and accommodation is well worth it.


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Make sure orthotics fit well. Geriatric falls are commonplace and are often the result of ill-fitting footwear or poorly made orthotics. Take your loved one for a pedicure to ensure feet and nails are taken care of properly. Falls are a common reason for hip breakage and could be the result of a poor gait.


These batteries can be budget busters for someone on a fixed income. Make sure to check whether a loved one has an adequate number of these batteries on hand. Life can be depressing and unnecessarily difficult if you can’t hear properly, and plus, people are safer if they hear can well.

This article originally appeared on and was syndicated by

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Featured Image Credit: stefanamer/istockphoto.