Mary Doane, Educator, muses about Zen Hospice Project’s Mindful Family Caregiver Program
“It is challenging in the best possible way!” Mary proclaims, as a senior instructor of the Mindful Family Caregiver Education Program, launched by Zen Hospice Project in late 2017.
A core faculty member of the education program, Mary first explains that designing and refining the curriculum has brought to her new levels of respect for her colleagues. Her admiration has grown even deeper for people she was in awe of to begin with.
In the Mindful Family Caregiver courses held so far, Mary’s says her primary experience is that of being moved. She has been deeply touched by what today’s family caregivers are contending with. While she’s had some personal experience, in addition to her lengthy professional background, Mary had thought she somewhat understood the full extent of the caregiver experience. “But to be in these classes now,” Mary shares, “To witness people, to see them, to hear their struggles and to feel the overwhelm that people are dealing with… it is truly humbling.”
It is clear to her that the Mindful Family Caregiver Education Program is responding to the enormous and unique need of support for family caregivers. Mary is honored to be part of a program that meets this need in an effective and conscious way.
Speaking further about the Family Caregiver experience, Mary says, “A major challenge family caregivers face is the feeling of being alone – alone in their struggle. What we are finding in our classes is that most people feel isolated in their caregiver role. They don’t feel seen, they doubt if they’re up to the task, they feel overwhelmed and exhausted.” Hesitant to reach out to others, many caregivers don’t want to burden their friends and family by “venting” all the time.
What can best help in this all-to-common situation? “Reminding people of their own inner resources,” Mary has realized. “Each one of us has these inner resources, such as compassion, self-compassion, patience, and connectedness in a broader sense. In our program we offer Family Caregivers ways to access and trust these internal resources… either again or for the first time and to be witness in community with other caregivers.”
Learn more about our Mindful Family Caregiver Education Program here.
Marian O’Dowd, a registered nurse with more than 20 years of experience, has had the chance to work in diverse segments of the healthcare, including elderly care case management, public health nursing, occupational health case management, and hospice care. I sat down with her to ask about the journey that led her to Zen Hospice Project.
When studying Marian’s background prior to our interview, I was intrigued to find out that aside from being qualified in Western medicine, she also had certifications in a multitude of Non-Western healing disciplines (in addition to being a certified professional coach and a registered Ayurvedic practitioner). Where does the interest in those other areas of expertise arise? I was surprised to learn that, while working as a hospice nurse, Marian experienced the trauma of facing her own death. It was a life-changing moment for her – one that had her ask the question: “What in my life want to die?” She was growing disenchanted with the practice of Western medicine which looked to pharmaceutical for cures. Marian thought there must be more to medicine than writing just another prescription for yet additional pill. Through her studies and work in non-western medicine, she was given a new perspective on the body, offered a new approach. She learned that the body and mind were not separate; she learned that the subtly of thought directly impacts the physical body; she learned the difference between curing and healing; and most important, she learned that, without question, love is the ultimate healing elixir and cultivating a soft heart is what matters most. As her understanding grew, so did her longing to share what, she considered was, sacred knowledge. Marian then opened a practice of her own, with its core rooted in this holistic vision. When I asked her what compelled her to start the venture, Marian said, “I felt compelled to share what I had learned. I was spilling over with this sacred knowledge and keeping it to myself didn’t feel right”. Marian knew she didn’t belong in the typical clinical environment where the pace is fast, support is scarce and there is just not enough time to look at a patient beyond the realm of their medical condition. Connecting to them as a whole person, would not be feasible.
After a few years, Marian started feeling some burnout from the pressure of managing her business and being a caregiver simultaneously, and the opportunity of working for the Zen Hospice Project presented itself. Upon learning that Zen Hospice Project is championing the model of Mindful Caregiving, through leading by example and advocating for this type of holistic lens in administering care, Marian was quick to realize that the Residents of the Guest House were not the only focus for Zen Hospice Project. Seeing this ecosystem foster an environment that allows for greater level of listening, compassion and mindfulness to take place, Marian felt the difference in the delivery of care from her past experiences right away.
Mindful Caregiving in a hospice setting allows a patient or a Resident to be seen as a whole person. Over the years Marian has noticed that “People yearn to tell their story – to be seen as the Spirit that they are. When the body presents as feeble, it’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, the body was vital and doing important work in the world. Usually people like to speak of these times. Often, as they reflect upon their life, they want to speak of deeper matters too. If the environment is friendly and the person feels held in the warm presence of another human heart, old hurts may come up and deep healing can occur. This is the magic of being-ness, isn’t it?”
The practice of Mindful Caregiving at Zen Hospice is revolutionizing the healthcare industry. In Marian’s own words, “We are attempting to put the ‘human’ back into humanity. Hopefully, our efforts and advocacy, will inspire other centers of healthcare to also…..lead with heart!”
Dhiraj Korwani is a Special Skills Volunteer and regular contributor to Zen Hospice Project. To read more about Zen Hospice Project’s Mindful Caregiver Education, click here.
Relationships, health and wealth – these are three core elements that dictate our state of mind. Though overly simplistic in first view, these three broad categories encompass every direct attribute that may either bring us joy or sadness. Whether it is a new addition to family or the loss of a loved one, a disease to be overcome or an all-clear health report, the act of sharing through charity, a windfall or even being fired, each of these events belong to one of the above mentioned categories. Do take note of how each example may directly correlate to our sense of well-being. We, in general, have been taught to be grateful for all the good things in our lives. Holidays, like Thanksgiving, remind us to express gratitude for all the things we have going for us too – our loved ones, our ability to keep a roof over our heads and the capability derived from our physical form to sustain it all.
Having said that, why is it that we express this emotion only on occasion? Should we be grateful only when we are happy? The answer here is worthy of exploration. I didn’t know I was about to learn lessons in relation to these questions when first starting out working in the healthcare industry. Whether it was the ones receiving care, the ones giving it or even the ones in the periphery of that exchange, my experience was enriched by the stories of all the people I’ve encountered in my journey on this career path. A particularly poignant moment was when I first took a day course with the Zen Hospice Project titled – ‘Mindful Caregiver Education: A Daylong Immersion’. Facilitated by Mary Doane, a Certified Stanford Compassion Cultivation TrainingTM (CCT) Instructor and an experienced caregiver in a hospice setting, the course helped explore areas like vulnerability, being mindful, accepting the reality of death and deterioration, being open and curious, having compassion, empathy and a sense of wonder for the great gift that life is.
I was really taken by the graciousness with which she conducted the class and how there was an emphasis on really being aware of the temporary nature of life itself in comparison to the grand scheme of things. Through the examples given by Mary and stories told by the attendees of the class, I realized how some people carry so much strength and positivity in the face of adversity. The concept of mindfulness really affected me the most. I may have been familiar with what it might entail but it was only at the end of the course I realized how much of a discipline it really is! Being present in the moment for those we care for and also for ourselves is key to really savoring the time we have on this planet. Carrying awareness of the gift of time we have been given and the opportunity that every additional living moment affords us is the true way to practice it in daily life. Maintaining this practice of mindfulness, a Buddhist philosophy of Zen living, brings along with it a sense of appreciation and gratitude as well.
Having recently watched a clip of a talk given by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, it quickly became clear that gratitude and happiness are definitely related to each other, but perhaps not in the way as described in the beginning of this very article. I have now learnt that happiness is born from the art of learning to be grateful for all that we do have and the opportunity to make meaning out of the time that has been awarded to us. Incorporating gratitude into our daily living, can make for a fuller living experience. Joy and happiness is in our control. If we all just keep believing that securing material and tangible markers of success are the true barometers of happiness, then no wealthy person
on this planet would suffer from depression. This however has found to not be true! The most common denominator we all share is the wealth of time. To be alive is to have the opportunity of action. What we do with our time, the way we use it and what we can potentially gain by truly being grateful for it has the answer to all the problems in our lives.
The easiest thing to do for anyone is to act in self-interest, however, the real challenge is to offer oneself in service of others in whatever shape or form whenever possible. With every act of compassion completed for others in their time of need, we become more aware of the surpluses and deficits of relationships, health and wealth that exist within each of those that surround us. We learn to be grateful for all that we do have, and to be compassionate towards those who may not have been blessed with the same. Choosing to use our time to service the need of another, while practicing the art of mindful living with gratitude, is the biggest form of joy one can derive from life. That is the true meaning of happiness.
It shouldn’t be so that material things, which have a limited-existence in the context of perpetual time, bring us happiness and thereby give birth to the emotion of gratitude. Rather, it should be the act of practicing gratitude and mindfulness that result in cultivating respect for time that eventually bring us happiness. In order to incorporate it into day-to-day living, it could be beneficial to start with a simple exercise. As suggested by a dear friend of mine – observe, recall or note at least three things you are grateful for each day before going to bed. Only by practicing in this disciplined manner can the goal be achieved. It’s just as simple as this sounds – If one seeks happiness, one ought to be grateful.
“Why are you volunteering at a hospice? Isn’t that a place where people go to die? Sounds incredibly depressing.” These were my sister’s words to me when I told her about signing up for the volunteer program at Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. This attitude towards the topic of death is not very uncommon. More than just a taboo, it just makes for an unpleasant, or rather, a heavy discussion which people may want to avoid and quite understandably so. The fear of the unknown can be terrifying, isn’t it? So, why was I gravitating towards volunteering at such a place?
Having graduated with a Masters’ degree in business with Digital Marketing as a specialization in the US, I had begun to search for meaning in my choice for a career path. It gradually dawned on me that I couldn’t ‘market’ something I didn’t myself believe in. An easier choice would have been to get behind a big well-known brand or sell a lifestyle product to the masses, as any young marketing professional should aspire to. But I asked myself, “Should I be creating wants rather than fulfilling needs for people?”
It’s at this cross-road, I found the opportunity to work for a hospital group in Dubai, where I was born and raised. Serving as a marketing and communications coordinator there, I found myself learning about the concepts of long-term care for chronic conditions and rehabilitative care for patients recovering from strokes and brain injuries. On the job, I also got the opportunity to interact with the patients, or Residents – as they were referred to, at the hospital facilities and their families too. Working with the Residents and highlighting the stories of them re-connecting with their families through Collaborative Art Therapy and Pastoral Care struck a chord with me. It truly gave me a window into the lives of these incredible people, who had an unwavering spirit, despite the disabling conditions that caused them to be admitted there as residents in the first place.
One day, during my research at work, I came across a Ted Talk titled – “What Really Matters at the End of Life?” by Dr. BJ Miller. His talk stressed on the importance of treating death differently than we typically tend to. It called for a move that pulls focus away from ‘curing at all costs’ in a hospital setting to ‘mindful care-giving’ in a hospice setting for terminal cases. It really got me thinking about the lack of awareness around palliative care as a concept in the middle-east in general. Perhaps this was due to limitations and prohibitions placed by culture and religious beliefs prevalent in the region. I realized that the hospital group I worked for provided services that were the closest available match in the country I resided in. However, it didn’t stop me from making a mental note to learn more about it. Upon moving to San Francisco mid-2016, I decided to give in to my curiosity and signed up for the ‘Mindful Caregiver Education: A Daylong Immersion’ offered by Zen Hospice Project. It was also my first step as a volunteer there – an intentional attempt on my part to learn more about how the continuum of care can carry over from the tail end of the disability spectrum, a concept familiar to me due to past work experience, to the end of life in a hospice setting.
It would be dishonest of me if I didn’t admit to romanticizing the idea of coming out from the course with a better understanding of death and a better handle over my own mortality. Having become more aware of the impending nature of death, while I grappled with my own health issues along with close encounters with the suffering of patients with serious illnesses and disorders, I was curious to see how this course could impact me. I found myself in a room full of strangers, who brought with them their own personal journey around the loss of a loved one and the opportunity or lack thereof for them to take care of their dear ones by the bed-side. To say that it made for an intense environment would be an understatement. I wasn’t prepared for it. As the course commenced, I began reconciling my own views on care-giving in a hospice setting with the actual experiences shared by others during the course. It quickly became clear that using empathy as a lens to care-giving was just the tip. Through the core concepts discussed in the course, I grew to learn how important it was to be aware of one’s own state of mind and the perceptions, biases and projections one may bring with along with oneself as a care giver for those so close to dying. By virtue of sheer life experience, it only seems natural when that happens. It was stressed upon us that it was key to remove such biases in care-giving. The course also involved a very emotionally intense exercise, during which we were made to experience different ways and forms of loss that one deals with when one is actively dying. The room was brought to a palpable and complete silence as we imagined every aspect of our own lives being stripped away from us – the roles we play, relationships that bind us, material possessions we care for, activities we love to do and our sense of self.
From realizing the volatility and vitality of life to grappling with finding calm, peace and restfulness in letting go, the exercise taught us how to have a better awareness, if not a reminder, of the temporary nature of our existence. The course also taught us to be present in the moment through silence and meditation for the patient and their family, so as to soften the turmoil that an impending death can inflict on the lives connected to it. I also got the chance to revisit my own mortality through a different approach. And, with it came a sense of gratitude for what I did have and compassion for others and their suffering. It was agreed within the group after the exercise that for each one of us, priorities seemed to shuffle in the order of relationships and experiences taking utmost importance above material wants and desires. An acceptance of our own impermanence washed over us freeing us from worries that now seemed trivial.
Accepting death to be just as much a part of our existence as life itself, can be a very intense yet liberating feeling. Using this learning as a tool for navigating life with the limited time we have on this planet can make for a fuller, richer, and more complete living experience. This course is not only meant for those looking to provide care at a hospice or at home for a loved one, its meant for learning the art of caring for yourself, others and finding meaning of life in death.