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Strengthening patient and family relationships on palliative care units

Toronto, July 4, 2013

By Evelyne Jhung

Yolanda Cavacchia visits with her husband, Tony, on the Palliative Care Unit. She said she believes intimacy is more important than ever and frequently gives him hugs and holds his hands.
Yolanda Cavacchia visits with her husband, Tony, on the Palliative Care Unit. She said she believes intimacy is more important than ever and frequently gives him hugs and holds his hands. (Photo by Evelyne Jhung)

Laura Bulmer, a nurse on the Palliative Care Unit, is on a mission to teach family members how to show their affection to their loved ones on the unit.

“I think it’s important that our patients’ emotional and psychosocial needs are met, not just their medical needs,” said Bulmer.

Ten years ago, when her own mother was dying, Bulmer was unsure about how to comfort her in the hospice where she was being cared for.

“I wasn’t a palliative care nurse back then,” recalled Bulmer. “A nurse suggested I crawl into bed with her so I could hold her. It had never occurred to me to do that. That’s actually how she died – in my arms.”

Her own experience is what inspired Bulmer to spearhead a project to encourage intimacy in a palliative care unit along with Victoria McLean, a fellow nurse on the palliative unit.

“Palliative patients can experience feelings of isolation and loneliness, and loved ones are sometimes unsure how to strengthen and maintain their relationships during this time of great existential, physical and emotional distress,” said Bulmer. “The goal of the project is to help address and alleviate these issues.”

Bulmer and McLean are keen to raise awareness and help increase the comfort level around the topic of intimacy among the palliative care team, patients and their loved ones.

“We recently helped arrange a ‘date night’ for a gentleman and his partner,” said Bulmer. “We laid out a white table cloth for their dinner and got some flameless candles to create a cozier environment. We want to give our patients as close to a home experience as possible by promoting their dignity and recognizing their emotional and relationship needs.”

Bulmer and McLean are creating a Can We Hug? idea kit (suggestions on how to create intimacy, such as having a date night) and pamphlet for patients and families as well as tools for staff to assist in facilitating conversations about intimacy.

The two presented their project at last year’s Research and Innovation Day as well as the international and provincial palliative care conferences. Bolstered by the overwhelmingly positive feedback they’ve received and the fact there is no research of this type in the literature, the two hope to get funding to turn their project into a research study.

About St. Michael’s Hospital

St Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.