By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Author: Seniors must serve as their own health care advocates

“I give a voice to things that have no voice,” or at least no voice most people understand, she said.

The Portland resident does the same type of thing in her latest book, “The Gift of Caring.” This time, however, she’s writing about humans — specifically, those who are aging, ill and in need of care.

Series examines end of life planning

Subtitled “Saving Our Parents From the Perils of Modern Health Care,” Houle’s book is being used in a series of “End of Life Planning” programs at Hillside Retirement Community. The author will speak at the first session of the series on Wednesday, Jan. 25. She will discuss “Lessons from the Front Lines: Strategies How Seniors Can Safely Navigate the Health Care Delivery System” at 3 p.m. that day in the Hillside Manor Activity Room.

Subsequent sessions of the series will  be held at 10 a.m. Thursdays, Feb. 2 through March 2 in the same location.

Houle co-wrote “The Gift of Caring” with Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom, a physician and instructor at Oregon Health Sciences University. Eckstrom, who specializes in gerontology, or medical care for the aged, provides a medical counterpoint to Houle’s personal story about caring for her parents during their final illnesses.

Comparing Houle’s other work, with wildlife, to her mission to help aging humans is apt. The changes associated with growing old often rob people of their ability to communicate their needs, she said.

A dementia patient, for instance, may become agitated because he is in pain or dehydrated, she said. His caregivers want to help, but they may not be able to understand what pains him because he cannot tell them. Therefore, they don’t take steps to address the real problem. This leads to frustration on both sides as well as continuing pain for the patient.

Whenever there is a lack of effective communication, she said, “they all need our help.”

Houle saw communication breakdowns firsthand when her father became forgetful and subsequently was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. A respected retired physician, even he “fell through the cracks” in the health care system, she said.

More than a decade after he died, Houle said she realized what she’d learned while caring for her once active, vibrant parents could be helpful to other caregivers and to elderly people themselves.

She reread the journals she’d kept during her parents’ illnesses. And, encouraged by her daughter, who was studying nursing, she talked with Eckstrom about geriatric medicine.

The doctor validated many of the things she’d felt and experienced, Houle said.

And she told her what Houle considers an alarming statistic: Only 3 percent of med students take even one class in geriatrics. “The over-65 age group is the fastest growing group, so there’s a real mismatch,” the author said. “Who’s going to be there to take care of you?”

Right now, she said, “it doesn’t look very good for when we get there, but hope it will be better.”

In too many cases, Houle said, seniors suffer or have a reduced lifespan “because of a fractured health care system and a lack of geriatric understanding.”

She’d like to start a health care revolution, she said, changing both the system and the way people deal with it.

Seniors need to learn to advocate for themselves, if they can. And their families and caregivers need to learn to advocate for them, as well.

“A lot of sad scenarios are not necessary, if you know what to look for,” she said.

People also need to know that it’s OK to question their doctors or switch health care providers.

“A lot of times we’re told we’re wrong” when we make suggestions or ask questions, she said. But caregivers can’t let that deter them from seeking the best for their parent or patient.

“You really need to arm yourself, so you’re not written off,” she said. “You need to advocate, know the lingo, know how to get the attention.”

In addition, those caring for the aging, especially for those with diminished communication skills or cognition, need to learn to read signs of what the patient is experiencing.

In the case of a dementia patient who cannot tell a caregiver about his pain, for instance, “It’s terribly important that you be a detective.”

Ask what’s wrong. Observe their behavior. Consider their history, the treatments they’ve received and the medications they’re on now.

“It’s like trying to reach through the dementia to understand,” she said.

Houle said she’s been pleased by the response she’s received about “The Gift of Caring.” It’s a book she would have liked to have read before she became a caregiver, she said, and she hopes other people find it helpful.

“If I could reduce suffering and save lives ... that was my motivation,” she said.


Series examines end of life planning

Author Marcy Cottrell Houle will speak at the first session of Hillside Retirement Community’s end of life planning series.

The series is based on “The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents from the Perils of Modern Healthcare” by Houle and Elizabeth Eckstrom, M.D.

Houle will speak at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, in the Hillside Manor Activity Room. She will discuss “Lessons from the Front Lines: Strategies How Seniors Can Safely Navigate the Health Care Delivery System.”

Additional sessions will be held at 10 a.m. Thursdays. They include:

Feb. 2: “Preparations for Medical Emergencies,” led by Peter Hofstetter, CEO of Willamette Valley Medical Center.

Feb. 9: “Important Legal Documents,” led by McMinnville attorney Carol Prause.

Feb. 16: “Oregon’s End-of-Life Options,” led by Matt Whitaker of Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization that works for patients’ rights and individual death options.

Feb. 23: “How Hillside’s Healthcare Units Can Help,” led by Stefanie Thune-Barnes, executive director of Hillside Brookdale.

March 2: “Hospice, Palliative Care and Medical Marijuana at Hillside,” also led by Thune-Barnes.

For more information about the series, call Hillside at 503-472-9534.


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