A painful experience of limited understanding: healthcare professionals’ experiences with palliative care of people with severe dementia in Norwegian nursing homes
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Background: People dying with dementia have significant healthcare needs, and palliative care, with its focus on comfort and quality of life, should be made available to these patients. The aim of this study was to explore and increase knowledge of healthcare professionals’ experiences with palliative care to people with severe dementia in nursing homes.
Methods: To describe the phenomenon under investigation, we used a phenomenological research approach grounded in the philosophy of Husserl. Data were collected using in-depth interviews with 20 healthcare professionals from four Norwegian nursing homes.
Results: The general meaning structure of the healthcare professionals’ experiences with providing palliative care to people with severe dementia is painfulness, due to their limited understanding of patients’ individual modes of expression. The painfulness is illustrated by the following themes: challenges related to “reading” the patients’ suffering, coming up short despite occasional success, handing the patients over to strangers, and disagreeing on the patients’ best interests. The healthcare professionals struggled to understand patients by “reading” their suffering. Occasionally, they succeeded and were able to calm the patients, but they often had the feeling of coming up short in situations related to pain relief and coping with behavioural symptoms, such as aggression and rejection of care. They also found it painful when the weakest patients were moved from the sheltered unit to a somatic long-term unit and were handed over to strangers who did not know the patients’ ways of expression. Although the healthcare professionals emphasized the importance of good collaboration with the patients’ relatives to ensure the best possible palliative care, they frequently found themselves in difficult situations when they disagreed with the family on the patients’ best interests.
Conclusions: We found healthcare professionals’ experiences of providing palliative care to people with severe dementia to be painful. To be able to understand the patients better, long-term familiarity and knowledge of how to “read” and observe patients with severe dementia are necessary. Openness in cooperation with the patients’ relatives and with the professional team may increase healthcare professionals’ understanding of the patients’ situations and hence improve the quality of care.