Emmanuel Hospice Embraces Technology to Better Serve its Patients and Families

One patient went across the country to visit a favorite lake in California. Another traveled to Romania to take in views of the village where she’d been born. And yet a third fulfilled a dream of embarking on a hot air balloon ride.

In all three instances, none of these patients left the comfort of their own home. They were transported virtually, thanks to an innovative partnership between Emmanuel Hospice and The Flight To Remember Foundation, which uses drone technology to allow patients to tour a
meaningful location they’re unable to visit physically.

“Part of our mission is to keep asking ourselves how we can expand the boundaries of care and build bigger and better tools,” says Heather Duffy, Emmanuel’s director of fund development. “In every instance, we want to be able to answer ‘yes’ to a patient wondering if we can do something to help them live their best life.”

Since its inception, Emmanuel has constantly strived to integrate technology into its menu of complementary therapies. But the issue was especially driven home during the ongoing pandemic, which prompted caregivers to seek alternative ways of interacting with and providing services to some patients.

“It became especially tricky with visiting restrictions,” observes Katie VanRyn, a social worker for Emmanuel. “But in recognizing the importance of connecting with our staff and with a patient’s loved ones, it became vital for us to pivot and adapt.”

Fueled by a passion to serve, Emmanuel sought and acquired funding to purchase iPads, Oculus virtual reality headsets and other technology that allowed patients to interact remotely.

“Even though a patient might enjoy my visit with them,” VanRyn says. “I know they’d rather be with family and friends, and when I can make those connections, that’s very fulfilling for us all.”

Perhaps the most innovative technological advance is via The Flight to Remember Foundation, founded in Ohio in 2015 and dedicated to providing “priceless moments of happiness during life’s most trying times.”

The nonprofit foundation partners with a network of volunteer drone pilots worldwide who honor requests to create videos of meaningful places a patient is unable to visit, but yearns to see one more time. The pilots use their small, unmanned craft to fly to a height of 400 feet to take in the vistas, then create a high-quality video which is then digitally transferred to the hospice to be shared with the patient. The patient is given the option of preserving the video in whatever format best suits them – a DVD, flash drive or via a digital link, for instance.

“Through virtual reality and the flights to remember, we’re providing something that would not otherwise be possible, usually due to a physical limitation,” Duffy says. “From the comfort of their home, they can go on a roller-coaster ride, take a hike through the mountains, ride a gondola – anything that brings comfort fulfillment, connection or joyful moments to our patients.

“It’s our way of offering more love, more care and more peace to more people in our community who need it most.”

Hospice Care: Understanding The “Who”

It’s not unusual to unearth misconceptions about hospice when discussing it as a healthcare option.

One of the prime misconceptions has to do with exactly who is eligible.

Basically, it’s anyone who’s been diagnosed by a qualified physician with a terminal illness and has six months to live or less.

As with virtually anything, there are a few asterisks to consider, but patient access specialists like Lindsey Cosgrove of Emmanuel Hospice emphasize that when in doubt, simply make a phone call to schedule a meeting to gather information specific to your medical situation.

“Too many people have this notion that hospice is mainly for the 98-year-old grandma or grandpa who has a day or a few days to live,” Cosgrove says. “That’s why we’re so eager to provide education, whether it be for a patient or that patient’s family or caregiver.”

Armed with information makes it easier for someone contemplating hospice to zero in on whether it’s something they should choose sooner or later, she says.

Cosgrove and others at Emmanuel – especially clinical teams comprised of nurses, social workers, spiritual caregivers and various therapists – can cite too many times when a person was frightened or misinformed and waited until the last minute to sign on for care.

“The number of people who tell us they wish they would have called us sooner?” Cosgrove poses.

“A lot.”

What too many fail to realize are the ways in which hospice can intervene weeks or months before a person dies. Sometimes, they’re swayed by physicians who are intent on curing their malady when in fact the illness is destined to result in the person’s death.

Still others are fearful that hospice will take away all their medications and not manage their symptoms. “That’s just not true,” says Cosgrove, explaining how rather than focusing on cures, hospice promotes palliative care, which leans on strategies to improve comfort and quality of life while relieving symptoms.

Those strategies might involve anything from a supervised drug regimen to visits from skilled nurses, spiritual advisors and aides – and treatments from therapists specializing in aromatherapy, music, massage and much more.

Another misconception is that hospice is available only to those in a hospital setting. Again, untrue, says Cosgrove, noting that organizations like Emmanuel Hospice will meet you virtually anywhere you live – in your house, apartment, condo, retirement community and more.

Another thing to consider is that Medicare and most commercial insurances cover 100% of virtually everything provided by hospice – visits, medicine, aides, counseling and other services. Again, there are some limitations, but one call to Emmanuel will help you discover where you stand. “If you’re unsure about how you qualify, we’re ready to assist,” Cosgrove says.

Cosgrove emphasizes that it all begins with that conversation: “We deal with a fair number of people who aren’t even sick, but just want to have as much information in hand ahead of time. It’s all about planning for the future, and learning in the moment so that when the time comes, you have clarity.”

Let the spirit move you: Create a spiritual estate plan

Stocks. Bonds. Home. Cottage. Valuables.

If you’re being thorough in planning for your eventual death, you’re careful to include it all — right down to which nieces and nephews receive those treasured knick-knacks. But will your final wishes recognize and reflect the religious or spiritual components that helped define your life?

“It’s valuable to have a conversation not only about your stuff, but about the importance of your religion or your spirituality when it comes to end-of-life decisions,” said nurse Carol Robinson.

A palliative care nurse for more than 30 years and community coordinator for Making Choices Michigan, Robinson has winced too many times witnessing family members unaware of how to integrate spiritual elements into their loved one’s healthcare and final arrangements. Usually, it’s because there was never a conversation, much less a written record of those desires, which is something Making Choices Michigan encourages as part of a comprehensive advance health care plan. As a spiritual caregiver with Emmanuel Hospice, Vern Bareman is always seeking opportunities to help patients and their families grasp the importance of raising religious and spiritual issues.

“As a spiritual caregiver, I don’t get into many conversations about financial matters, but I’ve helped many people who want to leave what I call a ‘values legacy,’” Bareman said. “Their faith was important to them, and that’s what they really want to key in on at the time of their death.”

Spiritual estate planning can mean choosing ahead of time which rituals and sacraments might be integrated into your final days, right down to which songs or sacred hymns might be played at your funeral. But it can also serve in a way that helps you decide who gets what from your will. For instance, you might gift one survivor more generously because they honored your religious values, where others did not. Spiritual estate planning also helps to record part of life’s journey that is too often overlooked.

“When you look at a person’s obituary, it often looks like a work resume, but spirituality is an important component to our lives, too, however we define that,” Robinson said. “While I’ve adhered to Christian beliefs throughout my life, I’ve struggled at times with doubt, just as the apostles Paul and Thomas did. I want my kids and grandkids to know that.”

Robinson has many records to help her survivors know the story of her life. “I’ve got 38 years’ worth of my own journals, and it includes how I’ve dealt with a lot of different things.”

In lieu of journals, Robinson said that patients in hospice or palliative care can achieve the same thing by having an open and honest conversation about how their religious or spiritual beliefs serve as an axis around which a final plan develops and evolves. Consulting websites such as makingchoicesmichigan.org or fivechoices.org is a good first step.

“Spiritual estate planning should be an important part of the conversation,” Robin-son said. “People tend to stress the physical health care and the financials. But it’s also important to live out your journey within your spiritual realm.”

Complementary therapies: When traditional medicine isn’t enough

As volunteer coordinator for Emmanuel Hospice in West Michigan, Jackie Chandler hears lots of stories from her team in the field, including one patient who wanted to try something other than prescription drugs to combat her pain. The hospice team was able to offer a whole slate of options from an increasingly popular set of alternatives commonly known as “complementary therapies” that go beyond pain medication.

“She was able to choose from a list that included massage, acupuncture, acupressure, essential oils, journaling, music therapy and more,” Chander said. “In the end, she felt more comfortable emotionally and physically — with more control over her care.”

Indeed, complementary therapies are becoming more and more popular among hospice providers. According to one study, just half of all hospice organizations employed complementary therapies in 2004. Today, virtually all provide at least some complementary therapies.

“Complementary therapies offer options to patients and their families that are outside the scope of traditional medicine,” Chandler said. “While we certainly provide medication to treat pain and discomfort, we’ve discovered that these complementary options can also do much to relieve pain, anxiety and stress.”

Feedback from trained volunteers and certified therapists reinforces scientific evidence that something as simple as a foot or hand massage can have transforming effects. Same for acupuncture and acupressure, which originated centuries ago in the Far East, but are now widely accepted in other locales and cultures.

As for music therapy, studies show that it can provide a wide array of benefits, including improved respiration, lower blood pressure, improved cardiac output, reduced heart rate and more. Hospice’s music therapists typically visit with a guitar in arm and some percussion instruments in tow, in case the patient feels like participating in the process. Therapists also rely on a detailed psychosocial assessment that helps to capture individual patients’ musical preferences.

A patient born in the early 20th century, for example, might warm especially to music from the 1940s and ’50s, and so the therapists are knowledgeable in songs from those eras. Chandler points out that music performed for a single patient can have a ripple effect if it seeps out of the room and down a hallway.

“Multiple people can benefit inadvertently if the sound wanders beyond the room,” she said.

At Emmanuel, staff members are excited about the prospects that essential oils are bringing to the table.

“It’s a new offering for us, and we’re excited to launch it,” said Chandler, noting that lavender, frankincense and lemon oils are used primarily in diffusers to create a mist that can help create a feeling of relaxation.

The same soothing comforts can be accomplished by having a gentle pet visit a patient. And then there’s journaling, part of a larger option available through a free participatory website titled “Be Remembered,” where patients can busy themselves in creating fond memories of their lives.

“It all boils down to hospice caring for the mind, body and spirit,” Chandler said. “Complementary therapies lay down a whole new layer of options.”

"Every Life Has Meaning"

At Emmanuel Hospice, compassion is our calling, so we’ve grown to understand the end of life is a time of reflection. We recently launched a program designed to capture patient stories, memories, and words of wisdom as they near the end of life and reflect on the past. Hospice volunteer Karin Orr uses the resources at BeRemembered.com to capture patient stories with a digital biography, which can include digitally stored photos and videos. Orr asks patients guiding questions to spur memories and fill in details, which she use to guide the conversation about a patient’s life story.

Karin was drawn to become a volunteer from the experiences of her unique life story. She began her career as a college professor, worked as a columnist for the Grand Rapids Press, hosted her own cooking show on WVGU, and eventually became a minister in the United Methodist Church. Thanks to this program, Karin has the chance to do volunteer work that combines her passion and skills for connecting with people and telling stories.

When Karen asks someone about their life story, she states “most people begin with, ‘I don’t have anything to say.’ But then, as I dig deeper and build a relationship, the most incredible stories start coming out.”

Karen likes using questions from the BeRemembered.com website as a way to highlight the small details of a person’s life that, she says, “end up meaning the world to families once their loved one has passed away.”

The BeRemembered program perfectly illustrates Emmanuel’s commitment to celebrating the lives of our patients. It not only reflects the values of our hospice ministry, it offers a chance for our patients to collect stories and memories for loved ones to treasure; all while our volunteers build deep relationships with those we serve.

Karin said that if she could sum up this program in one sentence, it would be “Every life has meaning.” That’s the ultimate goal of the BeRemembered program at Emmanuel Hospice: to honor and celebrate the stories that add meaning to every person’s life.

If you want to be a part of this program, we are currently recruiting volunteers to help our patients share their stories. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer with Emmanuel Hospice, contact Heidi Pelton, Volunteer Services Coordinator, at 616-250-5154 or hpelton@emmanuelhospice.org.