Patient befriending and advocacy Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by John Bohn, MD, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Apr. 27, 2017 -- 12:00 AM

julie grimstad
Julie Grimstad, LPN, founder and executive director of Life Is Worth Living, speaks at the recent conference on “Dignity at the End of Life:, from Suffering to Hope” held in Fitchburg. (Contributed photo)

Third in a series on the recent conference on “Dignity at the End of Life, from Suffering to Hope,” held in Fitchburg.

“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” St. Teresa of Calcutta

An opportunity presents itself

We are frequently given opportunities to do “small things with great love” for others. Unfortunately, we often pass many of these up due to simple lack of awareness.

However, once informed of specifics -- what the “small thing” is, who really needs it, why it is needed, and how to go about it -- we frequently find our hearts moved to embrace the opportunity and eager to spread the word to others.

At a recent Madison area conference, attendees representing a wide range of backgrounds, including doctors and others in various health care fields, were enlightened about the who, what, why, and how behind two such opportunities: patient befriending and patient advocacy.

Through her presentation titled “Patient Advocates (and Befrienders) are Desperately Needed,” Julie Grimstad, LPN, emphasized the pressing need for volunteers to embrace these roles.

Despite the word “patient” in describing both roles, neither requires substantial medical expertise or background. This simply indicates that persons served by such volunteers are all, in some way, “patients” -- typically challenged by old age, disabilities, or chronic medical conditions.

Patient befrienders and patient advocates do not deliver medical care, but rather provide assistance with those aspects of life that often accompany this patient role -- including, at times, interacting with various health care system entities and personnel.

Grimstad speaks from extensive experience, having begun volunteering as a patient advocate herself over 30 years ago. She is currently an advisor to Human Life Alliance, the founder and executive director of Life is Worth Living, Inc., and the founder of the parish-based St. John’s Befrienders ministry -- as well as a nationally known speaker and author who addresses all aspects of patient advocacy and medical decision-making.

In the face of suffering, unleash love

In concept, befriending and advocacy may be “small things.” In their effect, however, they can serve as great acts of love towards our neighbors in need.

Although these two types of patient outreach have many overlapping similarities, differing mainly in intensity, Grimstad stresses, “Both are designed to assist people who are medically fragile, devalued by society, in need of true friends to comfort them, console them, and protect them.”

Above all, both affirm a patient’s inherent worth and provide some sense of hope. While most frequently serving elderly patients, they can extend to patients of any age.

Patient befriending and patient advocacy inspirit the motto “In the Face of Suffering, Unleash Love.”

There is certainly ample evidence of suffering along with large numbers of those in need. Among these are the 1.5 million people currently residing in the 15,000 nursing homes throughout the United States and the additional two million people who are homebound -- many of whom suffer from loneliness or neglect, in addition to chronic medical problems and cognitive challenges.

What is patient befriending?

Although various secular-based patient befriender programs exist, Grimstad’s presentation focused on ones developed as parish-based outreach -- which she happily reports are growing in popularity. Befriender programs can vary in design, but one can be developed in any parish in any community. Interested individuals working alone can even do some form of patient befriending if no formal program yet exists.

In the parish-based St. John’s Befriender’s ministry that Grimstad now coordinates, volunteer befrienders are matched with one or more nursing home residents or homebound elderly. The goal is to forge a friend-to-friend relationship based on confidence and trust.

Volunteers must complete a training program and agree to visit the patient or patients assigned to them at least one hour per week. Visit content varies but often involves simply having conversations, praying together, sharing a snack, engaging in games or crafts, singing, reading aloud, accompanying to group activities, taking walks, and more.

“All of this matters! Often patients have no one else visit them or take them outside,” Grimstad notes, “And nearly everyone could learn to be a patient befriender. We even have a volunteer making visits using her walker, and another who does so in his wheelchair.”

Many patients have no close friends nearby, few or no adult children, a geographically dispersed family, or one that is busy, overwhelmed, or seems disinterested.

What is patient advocacy?

A patient advocate is a volunteer who carefully looks out for the welfare of the patent in the health care setting. Since this level of involvement demands more time, a person usually serves as the advocate for only one patient at a time.

“Many of us will have the experience of being a patient advocate for a close relative someday,” Grimstad reminds us, adding, “but more patient advocates are always needed.” To facilitate this, many excellent resources are available to educate and support those interested.

Advocates can support and protect patients in many ways: visiting often, arranging a schedule and communication notebook for family and volunteer visitors, assisting with forms and paperwork, interceding with requests to caretaker staff, utilizing vigilance and diplomacy to prevent or address recurring problems -- such as missed activities or cares, ignored preferences, suspected stolen items, “forgotten” or lost devices (hearing aids, dentures, eyeglasses, etc.), and more.

Often an advocate can be particularly helpful by accompanying a patient to doctor visits for support.

Next time: This series continues with lessons from Julie Grimstad’s presentation that specifically address dangerous threats to patients resulting from secular ethics, including euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, and confusing advanced directives.

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