PFAC Spotlight: PFAC Member Advocates for End-of-Life Decisions and More Conversations About Death and Dying

June 17, 2019

Dennis (Denny) Klass brings a unique perspective to Health Quality Innovators’ (HQI) Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC) with knowledge about the psychology of death and end-of-life care, as well as a background in the psychology of religion and experience as a grief advisor.

While completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago, Denny became an assistant to a psychiatrist in near-death studies, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who led a seminar on death and dying at the university. Her book, “On Death and Dying,” which examines stages of grief, helped change the way Western cultures deal with death and grief. Denny eventually became part of the religious studies faculty at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo, where he began teaching a course on death and dying.

While working as a professor he met a couple whose child had recently died. The couple was starting a local chapter of a self-help group for parents who had lost their children. They asked Denny to become the group’s professional advisor to help them deal with the death of their children (which he did for 20 years). Professional literature at that time said the purpose of grief was to leave the dead behind and find new attachments. As their advisor, Denny guided them in another direction. He helped them find ways of maintaining a bond with their children, even as they went on living in a world that had been radically changed by the child’s death. He found the term “continuing bonds” useful in describing these parents. “My job was to put what these parents learned about grief into scholarly literature.” The book he co-edited, “Continuing Bonds, New Understandings of Grief,” helped change the way mental health professionals think about grief.

Denny has served the Association for Death Education and Counseling, the Center for Advancement of Health Project on Grief Research, Bereaved Parents of the USA, the Religious Affairs Advisory Council, among others. Last year, he was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

Besides his background with bereavement, Denny also has experience with the continuing care community because he lives it daily. Denny and his wife are both residents at Collington Continuing Care Retirement Community in Maryland. It was Kay Laughton, a fellow Collington resident and current member of HQI’s PFAC, who first approached Denny about becoming a member of the PFAC because she thought he would add a great deal of value.

“Collington is an ideal continuing care community. We have a great system, of both independent living and assisted living. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case with all beneficiaries in long-term care facilities,” Denny said. “Some of the older adults in these communities that are less ideal than Collington have a bumpy road – being pulled out of one facility and sent to another. One of the interesting things about being old and living in a place like this is that we live life fully, even with death all around us.”

Being around people who are dying or grieving has made him think differently about what is important in life. “When the question of death comes up, I’m not afraid to talk about it,” said Denny. “There was a time, not so long ago, when we – as a society – didn’t talk about death. When someone was diagnosed with a terminal illness, the question was whether to tell them. When hospice first started, it was a radical change in the way we cared for dying people,” said Denny. “We are also doing a better job at asking questions – as a culture – about where death fits in.”

A topic frequently discussed by the PFAC is palliative care – specialized medical care for people living with a serious illness that focuses on relief from symptoms and stress of that illness with a goal to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Denny believes palliative care is wonderful. “I think we are moving in the right direction,” he said. We know how to take care of people in hospice and are finally acting like it is OK to die. It happens. We used to act like death didn’t happen. At least we can talk about it now.” Denny is also interested in hospice, end-of-life decisions, community health and patient/provider communication.

“Being on committees like the PFAC lets me have the opportunity to say, ‘Have you thought about this?’ and contribute my thoughts and experience. If I’ve been helpful, great. It’s nice to have people listen to you,” Denny said. “When I was teaching, I thought my job was to help students learn to ask the right questions. I often think that is one of my roles as a PFAC member.”

As a PFAC member, Denny has participated in council meetings, contributed to the conversation about quality improvement strategies and offered insight on death and dying. Going forward, Denny would like to help contribute to HQI proposals and the discussion about, “What is a good death?”.

“We are now talking about what makes a good death and I think we are continuing to move in the right direction,” he said. “HQI can be a part of that conversation.”

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