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Friday, September 12, 2014

Draw the Lines: The Art of Setting Boundaries

by Lizzy Miles

One cannot work in end of life care without being challenged by boundary issues. Hospice and palliative care professionals are present during the most intimate time of a person’s life – their death. I certainly am not an expert on boundaries, but I do think about them often. Consider this article a set of contemplations regarding boundary challenges we face.

Challenge: The Appearance of Compassion versus Professional Neutrality

My first internship was at a mental health counseling center. My training emphasized having a neutral facial expression at all times. The purpose, I suppose, is so the client feels comfortable with being open with the counselor. If the client revealed an unpopular thought, the counselor would not want to have a reaction that would lead the client to feel self-conscious about their disclosure. It makes sense, in theory, but there are times when facial expressions are not only warranted, but helpful.

I was leading a bereavement group and a client told a story about feeling responsible for a relative’s death in a car accident. She told her story in great detail and by the end, most of the other attendees were crying. I managed to hold back my tears, but my eyes did water. After the group, the woman who told the story came up to me and thanked me. She said she had attended individual counseling and felt like the counselor didn’t even care. She said she could tell by my face that I cared.

A couple of years later, I went to a training by Bob Neimeyer, a well-renowned expert on complicated grief. He shared a video of a counseling session and he cried with the client who had experienced a tragic death. I felt validated; if he could share emotion, then it must be okay.

Where to draw the line: The key to compassionate expression, I believe, is to not grieve more than the client. If your reaction is so strong the client ends up comforting you, then you may need to examine your own triggers.

Challenge: Intimacy versus Professional Distance

When we come into a patient’s life during a hospice admission, we are there during the most vulnerable time. We begin as strangers and we have to build rapport through openness and being approachable. If we are “too” professional, we can come across as cold or uncaring. It becomes a balancing act. We want them to see us as likeable AND trustworthy AND professional.

As we see patients decline, we are there for them, listening to the most intimate problems they face. They may tell us about embarrassing symptoms or about interpersonal conflicts within their family. We are their confidants. If we do our jobs well, they are comfortable with us and comforted by us.

Most people who work in hospice and palliative care are in the profession because it is our calling. I’m sure every professional has heard the phrase, “it takes a special person.” We are special and we do this job because we care.

Where we get into trouble: It is possible to care too much. One of my mentors taught me the acronym NATO - Not Attached To Outcome. We should not become so involved in a patient’s care that we think we know what’s best for them beyond what they want. We also have to be careful our relationship with the patient does not preclude them from relying on their own social supports. This most often happens when there is negative family dynamics. We especially do not want to get in the middle of the family dynamics. It is not our family. We should be neutral.

Challenge: Teamwork versus Personal Time

Hospice and palliative care is a round-the-clock profession. In an ideal world, the organization would be a well-oiled machine and every team would be appropriately staffed to cover all scenarios. The reality of the hospice business is there are sometimes staffing issues, call-offs, and of course, vacations. My absolute favorite part about working in hospice and palliative care is the team. I love the IDG meetings and the feeling of camaraderie among coworkers with a shared passion. We care about each other. We communicate and we collaborate often. We don’t ever want to let our co-workers down. If one nurse is in the weeds, the others will pitch in to help out. I have never experienced teamwork at this level in any of my other professional roles.

Where do we draw the line? Sometimes our willingness to help out our fellow staff comes at a price. We cancel our personal plans and we say, “I’ll do it.” I'm sure you can remember a time you have done this yourself. Maybe you were asked on your day off to attend a death. Without a blink of the eye you said, "Yes, of course, happy to help." Your clinical manager never knew about the watercolor class, daughter's softball game or other event you missed.

Over time, though, one needs to be careful about self-sacrifice to the detriment of our own personal lives. If we give too much, we will leave nothing for ourselves. Each person’s capacity for where their line is may be different, but we must draw a line at some point.

Have I solved the great boundary conundrum? I wish. The boundary challenges come with the job. The key to maintaining boundaries is to be aware of our interactions. The ideal boundary “line” is balanced between what is best for the patient and what is best for us. If our boundaries are too restrictive, we risk the patient not feeling that we care. If we do too much for the patient, we risk compassion fatigue.

Lizzy Miles, MA, MSW is a hospice social worker in Columbus, Ohio best known for bringing the Death Cafe concept to the United States. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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