Lise Blanchette is the executive director of the Airdrie and District Hospice Society (ADHS), which provides supports and programs for locals undergoing the end-of-life process.
As the subject of the Airdrie City View's 'Qs with the View' interview feature for September, Blanchette spoke to us about the impact of hospice care and the importance of supporting people who are undergoing the grieving process. She also provided an overview on some of the programs ADHS offers.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
City View: How long have you been involved with ADHS?
Blanchette: Ten years, so the whole time the society has existed. I was not part of the founding committee, but I was invited by the founding committee. I was a founding board member.
From there, I moved up to vice-president and then was president of the organization. We decided to hire an executive director full-time, and we did do that. With COVID though, they had to reduce me down to part-time. The funding was just not coming in like it was before.
City View: What led to you becoming involved with hospice?
Blanchette: It was the same thing for all of our board members at the time. We had all been impacted, either in the community or in other communities, by losing a loved one, and not having support. In my case, I had been with my sister...through her whole end-of-life process and had seen all the challenges involved. She was not in hospice, and I felt that treatment should have been received in the hospital.
My father died five weeks after my sister. He was in Agape Hospice in Calgary and it was just night and day, in terms of the support [he received compared to my sister]. We had some community members I was familiar with, one of whom was dying of cancer. Her husband, Al Goodwin, was actually one of the key founding members because he had two teenage daughters and his wife was dying. Everything was in Calgary, so it involved a lot of travelling.
Sometimes you have anticipatory grief, where you know somebody is dying, so you're anticipating it but you've already started the grieving process. You're driving on the highway at night back and forth to see your loved one and support them. That was the case for everybody in Airdrie. If they're lucky enough to get into hospice, they have to drive for it. That was my own personal experience, and I think the board's wish was to have a hospice in Airdrie. We still have that wish, but funding is not currently there for it.
City View: Why is hospice important?
Blanchette: First off, people don't think about death until it happens to them or a loved one. The second thing is, unless the need is there and directly impacts someone, they're not really aware of what's involved in having to access resources in Calgary and not your own community. Thus, we have a lot of programs.
City View: What are those programs?
Blanchette: We have the children's and adult's grief program and we have palliative care companions for at home to help with the burden of sitting with a loved one. We've had families where the loved one doesn't even go to their own medical appointments, so have had pretty serious health problems. Those are the reasons why we started those programs.
The children's grief program connects grieving youth with other children, and the adult program helps them relate to other adults who are experiencing the same issues. Things like, whether they take off their wedding ring after their spouse passes, or what to say when people tell them to 'get over it.' We're walking them through the steps and letting them know there is no timeline for grief. Each person grieves differently and your experience is not the same as someone else's experience.
We also have the Compassionate Care Fund (CCF). Through the CCF, we help people with expenses like paying for parking for chemotherapy appointments at the Foothills hospital. We pay for medication that is not paid for under Alberta Health or any other program. Typically, one of the reasons we have the CCF is because people are usually financially strained because one partner is no longer working. A lot of people we work with are under 60 and are – or were – still working in the community, so that family is down to one salary.
City View: What about your new cooking-for-one program?
Blanchette: Cooking-for-one is more about connecting people to the community, connecting them to other people who have had a loss and ensuring they're eating properly.
People tend to just have a banana or toast, or some cereal, after they've lost somebody. They're depressed, by themselves, and don't often feel like cooking. This program is not just about recipes. It's not a cooking lesson, so much as connecting them to others who have had a loss and are by themselves. That's what a lot of our programs do.
City View: What is it about hospice can make the end-of-life process more manageable?
Blanchette: I think it's because we know we're grieving, but we don't really know the steps of grief. There are different steps. Some people will cry a lot, some people will just be task-oriented and want to get things done. Some people are a blend of both. Someone who is emotional and cries a lot, someone might say, 'You know, it's been six months. It's time to move on with your life.' But each person grieves differently and there is no timeline.
What I usually say is that there are huge waves of grief at first. As we move through the grief, those waves get smaller and smaller. The grief never goes away, because you loved that person, and they were a part of your life. But it will get easier for you as time moves on. It's not something you switch off and get over.
What happens with children is they can mimic adults. If the adult is emotional and crying, the child can be like that too, or they can hold it in because they don't want to upset that person. They're not sharing or talking about their grief, and other kids at school typically can't understand that either. In a grief support group, there are other children who have experienced similar losses. Now, they can share in a confidential manner what their thoughts are. It helps them work through it.