MedCity Influencers

The Powerful Hospice Lessons of Jimmy Carter  

Carter entered hospice care in his home, more than a year ago, and has set an inspirational example of how to live your last days on Earth with hope, meaning, and vigor.  

As a senior with many serious health issues, he could have retreated into a cocoon of bitterness and self-pity. Instead, former President Jimmy Carter is teaching us one of the most inspiring lessons of all: How to live – how to really live – until you die. 

At age 99, Carter is the oldest and longest-lived US president. Four years ago, he confided that he never expected to live so long. That was while he was taking a brief break from helping to build his 4,000th home over the prior 36 years for Habitat for Humanity. Which was after he had fallen the week before and required 14 stitches in his head. Which was after he had been diagnosed with melanoma that had spread to four different parts of his brain. Which was after he had broken his hip while turkey hunting and broken his pelvis after a fall at home. 

Which was after he had won his third Grammy, seen 1,300 different species of birds, flyfished on five continents, and learned to downhill ski after reaching the official Social Security retirement age of 62. 

It’s exhausting just to recount the last decades of his bustling activity. It must have been fantastic to actually live it.  

Carter entered hospice care in his home, more than a year ago, and has set an inspirational example of how to live your last days on Earth with hope, meaning, and vigor.  

Americans don’t like to talk about death. We know our life story must have a final chapter, but it usually is written as a mystery behind closed doors. What’s out-of-sight and unknown becomes scary.  

As a critical care nurse and CEO of a complete senior health company, I think Carter should be lauded for drawing public attention to the reality of death – something that is typically a process, not an event, but also one that can be made better for you and your loved ones if we go through it with realism and candor and even dignity and grace. 

What is remarkable about Carter’s attitude toward death is that he’s not just waiting for it to happen. He is truly living to the hilt while he’s still breathing.  

Few things can sap the spirit like a decade of metastasized cancer, but the former president clearly has found daily motivations to wake up and keep moving ahead. For years his most public examples were outdoors – fishing, hunting, birding, hiking, and traveling – but my own career with seniors has taught me there are few positive forces more motivating than the community you build at home. 

Carter was married 77 years to his Plains, Georgia hometown sweetheart, Rosalynn, who confided that Jimmy was the first boy she had kissed on a first date. “The best thing I ever did was marrying Rosalynn,” Jimmy Carter explained at a 2015 conference. “That’s the pinnacle of my life.” Last year Carter was rolled into her funeral in a wheelchair while wearing a blanket with her picture on it. 

In news video of the church service, the frail former president looked his age. He deserves a hat tip for reminding us how common it is to see people at the beginning of life – and how rare it is to see people toward the end. I salute his forthrightness. 

One of the best lessons of all, though, has come through his public embrace of palliative and hospice care.  

For too long, Americans have had a misunderstanding that hospice care is akin to quitting, and that hospice means death is just days away. Carter has shown the reality is quite different – he has lived more than a year under hospice care.  

The truth is that Carter, like many Americans with serious illnesses, has progressed through two kinds of end-of-life care – palliative and hospice treatment.  

Palliative care is specialized medical treatment for people living with a serious illness, such as cancer or heart disease. Patients in palliative care may receive medical help for their symptoms along with curative treatment. The idea is to focus on the best quality of life for the person and their family.  

What often follows palliative care is hospice care, which typically starts when the physician concludes that the advancement of the illness cannot be stopped. Hospice provides comprehensive comfort care and family support while attempts to cure the person’s illness are ended.  

Many people in palliative and hospice care choose to not do high-risk surgeries or complex pharmaceutical treatments, deciding to live their remaining days more actively and joyfully in the moment instead of “fighting for the surgery” and all the painful recovery and rehab that may follow. They can still fight to live as best they can for as long as they can, minimizing suffering to be able to spend their remaining best moments with family and friends. 

The goal is to be surrounded with comfort and love, and to die in peace. 

As in life, there are no guarantees in death, but we should be grateful to Jimmy Carter for showing us a way to make the most of our remaining heartbeats. 

Photo credit: The Carter Center

Joel Theisen RN, BSN is chief executive and founder of Lifespark, an industry leading COMPLETE Senior Health company based in Minnesota. He is passionate about empowering all seniors to Age Magnificently!

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