Hospice: The question of isolation and the absence of touch

I took a job a few months ago working for hospice doing massage therapy.   I’m in the business of human touch because I know that hands heal. I have seen people melt and come to tears when they experience the effect of compassionate touch. For me, it’s spiritual work. Tensions dissolve and hope is restored under the hands of someone offering non-judgmental loving kindness.     All kinds of communication happen with touch:    

You’re not alone.
You’ve worked hard.
It’s alright to feel good.
You deserve good things.
You’re safe.
It’s ok to relax.

Massage doesn’t just communicate these things to the recipient, it proves them: the evidence happens in real time in the body mind and spirit.    

In the last few weeks, things have changed rapidly as assisted living centers, memory care units, senior homes and skilled nursing units have all gone on various levels of lock-down in the interest of protecting residents from catching a virus.     

The question I’ve been asking myself is: What happens when people who are already challenged are kept in isolation? Dining rooms closed, activities canceled, family and friends unable to visit. Massage and music eliminated, spiritual care and mental health support limited to phone calls for those who can hear and are still able to talk on the phone, which for hospice, is not many. Nurse and aide visits restricted to essential care only- once or twice a week for aides, less than that for nurses.    

I don’t argue with isolation as a strategy to slow the spread of an easily transmittable virus. I don’t know that I’m arguing against anything at this point. I just know that these patients under the care of hospice will decline and approach death more rapidly without human contact, whether they catch a virus or not. I know that their quality of life will plummet and the allover comfort of loving hands, kind eyes, and aides who used to visit 4 or 5 times a week whispering “You look beautiful today” into their ears….That comfort will be gone.    

Human presence heals. Touch soothes. And the benefit these patients receive through the incredible work of nurses and aides, and music and massage and mental health workers and spiritual guides who come to sing hymns with them…. cannot be underestimated.    

The truth is that they’re on hospice because they’re declining and approaching death. The role of the hospice worker is to support and nourish, enhance and enrich the quality of life for these people. Truthfully, we can’t do this if we’re not in the room with them.

Philosophically, the larger question is: if saving lives is the primary goal and quality of life becomes secondary, we might seem to be taking the correct ethical approach, but what’s the cost?    

I don’t have the answers, but the last few weeks have certainly raised alot of questions.

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