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Missing: Death Education for Nursing Facilities

September 1, 2004
by root
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Confronting mortality helps staff and caregivers ease the fears of the dying by Donalyn Gross, PhD, LCSW, CMP
BY DONALYN GROSS, PHD, LCSW, CMP

Missing: Death education for nursing facilities

Staff need to be trained in comforting dying residents, their families, and themselves Imagine yourself as a nursing home resident without family or any available friends. To whom can you turn who will understand your end-of-life issues? With whom can you discuss your last wishes? Who will take care of you when you are dying? Will you be alone?

Caregivers at your facility may be the last people with whom you'll have contact. Wouldn't it be a relief to know that your caregivers are well trained to help you at the time when you are most uncomfortable?

Let's face it, who wants to talk about death? Sooner or later, though, we're all going to have to face it. Being around others who are willing to talk about end-of-life issues makes it easier to release our innermost fears regarding death. Lying in a nursing facility, perhaps in a fragile state, it's important to know there is someone near who understands your concerns and will be there for you until the end. And it's important for staff to feel comfortable in that role.

When I completed nursing assistant training 25 years ago, the only topic covered regarding death and dying was postmortem care. I was 22 years old and had no experience whatsoever with a dying person. Discussion about death was not encouraged by nursing staff. Nursing assistants were taught to be task oriented, meeting the physical needs of the dying in a precise and clinical manner. Nurses would close the curtains around the patient nearing death and periodically check for cessation of vital signs. I often wondered how my own death would be. Would I die alone or in pain? I see many CNAs and nurses come into long-term care facilities who lack the experience and training regarding death and dying, and some who have never witnessed a death. They feel as I have felt-fearful, anxious, and helpless.

Debra Sullivan, RN, BSN
Healthcare Trainer
Huntington, Massachusetts


A large percentage of elderly people die in nursing homes. But nursing homes have clients other than the elderly, including people with terminal illnesses, such as AIDS, as well as head injury patients and people with chronic debilitating diseases. As a result, the age of nursing home residents is declining on average, yet the challenge to staff remains the same. We understand medical death, in which breathing ceases as a result of terminal illness, accidents, and/or age; psychological death, as in Alzheimer's disease; and theological death, the moment the soul leaves the body. Death is our "final frontier."

As a nurse on a palliative care/hospice unit, I recognize the need of a support system. It can be very difficult emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Each of us has the right to die pain-free and with dignity. In order for each family to receive the individual and necessary support for this to happen, we must protect, enhance, and continue to develop and educate staff in end-of-life issues. The support of a bereavement counselor, educational workshops, and spiritual enhancement is of the utmost importance for staff.

Sally Wheeler, RN
Personal Touch Homecare
West Springfield, Massachusetts


Death education is necessary to enable us to think and talk about our own deaths. If we can understand and feel comfortable with this, we can become a valuable source of help to others. As we learn to cope with our own grief, we can better work with the dying, as well as meet the needs of the bereaved. Training professionals to provide these educational and supportive services is increasingly important.

Who should be trained in death education? Everybody-medical staff, housekeepers, laundry workers, porters, kitchen staff-in contact with that resident. Simple caring and compassion are the main ingredients of what is needed to ease the fears of the dying.

There are few issues confronting healthcare professionals that have equal or more impact than the death of a resident. Nursing facilities provide care and staff are often referred to as caregivers. Without proper support and death education, staff are on a quick road to burnout and turnover, and may be subject to issues related to grieving and depression. The resident's family and support systems are also compromised and often are in need of support by this very same staff. Death education cannot be underestimated. It must be provided with strong administrative support with the involvement of direct-care management staff. Internal support groups facilitated by knowledgeable staff or consultants are instrumental to the success of providing these services. Having an educated perspective that allows for understanding the social and emotional aspects of a resident's death will facilitate our success of providing this important service. Our residents and families need us to be the experts!

George Mercier, Administrator
Heritage Hall West Nursing Home
Agawam, Massachusetts

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