In order to improve care, insight is needed into the challenges that one experiences in the daily care work. One way to gain insight is to conduct interview studies with healthcare staff. The analysis of the interviews can provide a well-founded perspective on the challenges, as they are experienced from within the practices.
In Sweden, people with severe dementia usually die in nursing homes. Compared to the specialised palliative care of cancer patients, the general care of people with severe dementia at the end of life is less advanced, with fewer opportunities to relieve pain and other ailments. To gain a clearer insight into the challenges, Emma Lundin and Tove Godskesen conducted an interview study with nurses in various nursing homes in Stockholm. They approached the profession that is largely responsible for relieving pain and other ailments in dying severely demented people.
The content of the interviews was thematically analysed as three types of challenges: communicative, relational and organisational. The communicative challenges have to do with the difficulty of assessing type of pain and pain level in people with severe dementia, as they often cannot understand and answer questions. Assessment becomes particularly difficult if the nurse does not already know the person with dementia and therefore cannot assess the difference between the person’s current and previous behaviour. Communication difficulties also make it difficult to find the right dose of pain medications. In addition, they make it difficult to assess whether the person’s behaviour expresses pain or rather anxiety, which may need other treatment.
Visiting relatives can often help nurses interpret the behaviour of the person with dementia. However, they can also interfere with nurses’ work to relieve pain, since they can have different opinions about the use of, for example, morphine. Some relatives want to increase the dose to be sure that the person with dementia does not suffer from pain, while others are worried that morphine may cause death or create addiction.
The organisational challenges have to do in part with understaffing. The nurses do not have enough time to spend with the demented persons, who sometimes die alone, perhaps without optimal pain relief. Furthermore, there is often a lack of professional competence and experience at the nursing homes regarding palliative care for people with severe dementia: it is a difficult art.
The authors of the article argue that these challenges point to the need for specialist nurses who are trained in palliative care for people with dementia. They further ague that resources and strategies are needed to inform relatives about end-of-life care, and to involve them in decision-making where they can represent the relative. Relatives may need to be informed that increased morphine doses are probably not due to drug addiction. Rather, they are due to the fact that the need for pain relief increases as more and more complications arise near death. If the intention is to relieve symptoms at the end of life, you may end up in a situation where large doses of morphine need to be given to relieve pain, despite the risk to the patient.
If you want a deeper insight into the challenges, read the article in BMC Nursing: End-of-life care for people with advanced dementia and pain: a qualitative study in Swedish nursing homes.
Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.
Lundin, E., Godskesen, T.E. End-of-life care for people with advanced dementia and pain: a qualitative study in Swedish nursing homes. BMC Nurs 20, 48 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12912-021-00566-7
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