Caregiving

Helping Hands Offer Support at the End of Life

A growing network of 'death doulas' is gaining popularity while caring for patients and their families.

Elena Wertheimer still remembers the panic she felt last year after her terminally ill father, Vincent Battista, was released from the hospital to spend his last days at his Wyckoff, N.J., home. She didn’t know how to prepare. She wasn’t sure how to care for him—or herself. “It’s hard to think straight,” she says. “You’re under extreme stress.”

On the advice of friends, Wertheimer sought help from an end-of-life doula, a new type of caregiver for dying patients and their families. Also known as death doulas, they offer support through all the stages of dying, similar to the roles that birth doulas play during pregnancy and delivery. Doulas discuss a dying person’s wishes and concerns, and they create memory books for the family. They organize vigils and coach relatives on the signs of dying. Some run errands, organize paperwork or even plan home funerals.

Wertheimer, 49, was very close to her father, and her doula, Janie Rakow, helped her overcome her fear of watching him die. Rakow encouraged her to sit with him and hold his hand. Rakow gently guided her to his bedside after he passed, and Wertheimer and other family members spent four hours there, crying, laughing and telling stories. Rakow ensured they weren’t interrupted. “It was very, very special,” Wertheimer says. “I saw him finally not suffering. My last vision of him was peaceful. It made all the difference in the world.”

Doulas are gaining in popularity amid a growing effort to improve the end-of-life experience for patients and families, particularly when someone dies at home. Doulas cover “a huge gap” in time and resources that busy hospices can’t always provide, Rakow says. A hospice team advises families on medical care for the dying; doulas guide the dying and their loved ones through the end-of-life process, offering mostly emotional and other nonmedical support.

Finding a Doula

If you’re thinking of using a doula, you may find the search confusing. There are death midwives, mourning doulas, death coaches and more. Some are volunteers; others charge hourly rates of $25 to $100 or offer “Vigil Packages” costing $1,000 and up. There is no regulatory oversight or standard licensing, training or certification. “It’s still kind of the Wild West out there,” says Patti Urban, a doula in Guilford, Conn.

Insurance typically doesn’t cover costs for a doula. Before hiring one, check whether your local hospital or hospice has a volunteer doula program. But be sure the doula can provide all the hours you want.

The International End of Life Doula Association (www.inelda.org) is compiling an online state-by-state directory of doulas it has trained. The nonprofit has provided the training for hospitals and hospices in California, Indiana, New Jersey and New York, and it will train aspiring doulas in 12 cities this year, says Rakow, the association’s president. Doulas will also work with you in hospices, hospitals, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.

Decide what you want from a doula. Do you need someone to organize end-of-life documents? Or to provide a 24-hour presence at the bedside? Set up a consultation, advises Merilynne Rush, co-founder of the Lifespan Doula Association, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Be sure your doula’s personality is a good fit. You might prefer a take-charge attitude or a soothing presence.

Most doulas charge an hourly rate. Start out with a few hours before making a larger commitment, Rush says. Ask for a contract spelling out services and fees.

Review a doula’s qualifications and training, including criminal background checks and previous experience. Some attend weekend seminars, while others serve a minimum number of vigil hours and pass exams to become certified.

Other groups that train doulas include MourningDoula.com and the Lifespan Doula Association, which details standards of practice at www.lifespandoulas.com. Doulagivers.com offers a free webinar to learn the basics of caring for a dying loved one.

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