College program to focus on dealing with death

The program will be taught at Maria College in Albany, N.Y., in the fall

'Time is right for this program'

Two hospice workers are developing the curriculum for the 15-credit course

July 15, 1999|By Paul Grondahl | Paul Grondahl,Albany Times Union

ALBANY, N.Y. -- After years of learning about death and dying through their work with hospice patients, two women are developing a college curriculum leading to a certificate in bereavement.

The 15-credit certification program at Maria College in Albany, which recently received approval by the New York Education Department, will begin in the fall. It is aimed at health-care professionals, educators and others seeking to work in the field of bereavement services.

"We've received so many lessons and blessings from hospice patients and their families that we decided it was time to share some of that knowledge through this forum," said Sister Jean Roche, a coordinator of the certificate program and the newly named campus minister at Maria College.

Roche, 60, spent 17 years as chaplain at the Community Hospice inn at St. Peter's Hospital in Albany before a debilitating bout of rheumatoid arthritis forced her to retire abruptly a year ago. She returned to work after successful medical treatment and a spiritual sabbatical.

"It was medicine, mystery and miracle," Roche said. "My doctor said I'm one of the lucky ones to have made a full recovery. Personally, the past year was a chance for me to grieve over the thousands of hospice patients and families I'd worked with over the years."

Creative methods

Roche is known for creative methods of helping terminally ill patients share their feelings about dying, including journal writing; rituals with candles, incense and water; healing touch; prayer and meditation through music; and devising personalized memorial services.

Roche created the new bereavement program with Eileen Clinton, 44, of Troy, N.Y., who spent eight years as bereavement coordinator at Community Hospice. Clinton left that job to care for her mother, Florence Clinton, who suffered from kidney failure and died last year at 81.

"I was so grateful to share the final year of my mother's life with her," Clinton said. "I learned so much by being her caregiver and practicing what I had preached at hospice for years."

Clinton and Roche's relationship predates their time together at hospice; Roche was Clinton's English teacher at Catholic Central High School in Troy.

'Kindred spirits'

"It's amazing how our paths have crossed and recrossed. We're kindred spirits and we've been each other's teachers in many ways," Roche said.

Roche and Clinton found a receptive ear for the bereavement certificate proposal with Maria College administrators.

"We think the time is right for this kind of program," said Sister Laureen Fitzgerald, president of Maria College. "Our population is aging and as a society we're trying to come to terms with recent incidents of school violence. We need to learn new ways of coping with grief and loss."

Maria College has about 850 full- and part-time students and is a two-year institution offering associate's degrees. Fitzgerald said the bereavement courses will enhance the training of Maria students in nursing, occupational therapy and physical therapy.

Maria College was founded by the Sisters of Mercy, the religious order to which Roche belongs, and the school is adjacent to hospice offices at St. Peter's Hospital, where Roche and Clinton worked for years.

Roche and Clinton, both of whom will teach courses, have enlisted current and former hospice staff members as instructors.

"I'd like to make this program an oasis to reflect on grief and loss in a way that our fast-paced society doesn't always allow," Roche said.

The program will offer courses on spirituality and ritual, support groups, children and death, care of the caregiver, assisting grieving families, disenfranchised grief and other areas.

The classes will involve an experiential learning approach and will include discussions with terminally ill patients and their families and visits to funeral homes and memorial services. The cost of the courses, which will be available nights and weekends, is $200 per credit hour.

"We're bringing together a blend of talented teachers," Clinton said. "There's a hunger in the community to learn about and to talk openly about death."

Adults uncomfortable

A recent survey by the National Hospice Foundation found that adult Americans are uncomfortable talking about death and reluctant to ask elderly parents about their wishes regarding care in life's final stages.

One out of four Americans over the age of 45 surveyed said they would not bring up issues related to their parent's death, even if the parent had a terminal illness and less than six months to live.

"It's time we started talking," said Karen A. Davie, president of the National Hospice Foundation in Arlington, Va. She said baby boomers and their elderly parents are experiencing a communications breakdown when it comes to discussing death.

Currently, there are nearly 40 million senior citizens in the United States, but that number is expected to double in the next three decades as baby boomers reach age 65. Each year, more than 70 percent of the 2.3 million people who die in America are faced with difficult end-of-life care decisions, often without adequate early discussion about options.

"It's amazing how our paths have crossed and recrossed. We're kindred spirits and we've been each other's teachers in many ways."

Pub Date: 07/15/99

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