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Health Prog. 1996 Nov-Dec;77(6):16-20.

Changing the culture of dying. A new awakening of spirituality in America heightens sensitivity to needs of dying persons.

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Park Ridge Center, Chicago, USA.


Americans increasingly believe there are material solutions to all problems. Though we once accepted death as a part of life, we now think that--with enough technology--death can be controlled and postponed. Throughout this century, we have moved the dying process from the home to institutional settings. But institutions have a tendency to push all care to its logical end, which leads to alienation, fragmentation, and diminishment. Alienation is the result of the isolation and regimentation found in acute and skilled nursing care facilities. When care givers are indifferent to patients' pain, or do not know how to control it, they further impair the ability of dying persons to interact with others. Care for the dying person, "system by system, organ by organ," as is typical in institutional settings, fragments the dying process into a series of medical events. And, finally, institutionalized care often results in a diminishment of respect by care givers, who may come to view the dying person more as an object of academic interest than as a human whose spiritual needs may transcend physical ones. Such behavior has begun to show us the human costs of denying death and is contributing to a reawakening of spirituality in this country. The devastating effects of alienation, fragmentation, and diminishment can be ameliorated by a heightened sensitivity to the dying person's spiritual needs. With the proper supports, the dying process can be relocated from institutions to the home. Specialized training can educate healthcare professionals about palliative care and human needs at the end of life. We can rehumanize dying persons by first rehumanizing their care givers, specifically addressing the issues of stress and burnout on the job. Ultimately, the way we give care at the end of life reflects broader issues in U.S. culture. Only when communitarian values replace individualistic ones will resources be reallocated in a manner that best serves the most people. Only then will physicians, nurses, and other care givers receive rewards for supporting the dying person when tests and treatment are no longer needed.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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