Georgia Baptist College of Nursing Working to Help Churches Assist the Dying

Through a grant from Mercer’s AIM program, the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing has begun an initiative to educate members of Atlanta-area churches to help others as they face death. The project offers free support from Mercer faculty volunteers with the College of Nursing, as well as School of Medicine and College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, who provide training for church lay health advisers, or Mercer Care Partners, in palliative care.

The Mercer Care Partners will train laypersons to help meet the needs of members of their congregations in need of palliative care, which is the practice of preventing and relieving suffering while ensuring the best quality of life possible for individuals with advanced chronic and life-threatening conditions.

The response in the first weeks of the program has been overwhelming, said Dr. Janet Timms, professor of nursing and one of the organizers of the program.

“We did outreach to a small number of churches, but we’ve been hearing back from other congregations who have heard about the program and want to participate,” Dr. Timms said. “We’re thrilled with the response. It’s been a delightful surprise.”

Most congregations are significantly affected by illness, care-giving, end-of-life needs and grief, Dr. Timms said, and congregations are looking for ways to help members with the winter in the “seasons of life,” which can often extend for months or years. It is important for communities of faith to help members prepare for them and deal with those difficult times, she said.

As part of the program, church members who agree to participate and become Mercer Care Partners in their congregations will receive training in the following topics:  
introduction to palliative care; ethical issues at the end of life; cultural considerations and spiritual care; communicating with patients and families about end-of-life care; loss, grief and bereavement; and care during the final hours of life.

So far, a number of churches have expressed interest and several have begun courses, Dr. Timms said. The response has led the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing to apply for further AIM funding, as well as outside funding to expand the program.

“There is just such a need for this, and we’re hoping to find ways to expand it,” Dr. Timms said.
In addition to the church outreach, the focus on palliative care will extend to those working in the field as well. The Georgia Baptist College of Nursing will host a research conference, titled “Perspectives and Reflections from the Gloaming of Life:  Palliative Care and End-of-Life Challenges,” on March 26 in the Trustees Dining Room on Mercer’s Atlanta campus.  The conference is open to all members of the nursing, theology, pharmacy or medical professions who are interested in palliative care. The purpose of the conference is to enhance the ability of health professionals and community members to meet palliative care needs. 

The Rev. Dr. Julie Pennington-Russell, lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Decatur and a Mercer trustee, will speak at the opening session. Dr. Pennington-Russell will give a presentation titled “Spiritual Dimensions/Care of Those in the Final Stages of Life.”

The conference is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and will include six sessions. The morning sessions include Dr. Robyn Mowery, assistant professor of family therapy in Mercer’s School of Medicine, presenting “Grieving with Hope: Anticipatory Loss through Bereavement,” and Dr. Susan S. Gunby, professor of nursing, presenting “‘Being There’ and ‘Being Here’ During the Phases of Suffering.”

The three afternoon sessions include Dawn Keller, staff nurse for Wellstar/Kennestone, presenting “It’s a Roller-Coaster Ride: The Lived Experience of Critical Care Nurses Caring for Patients during the Dying Process,” Dr. Denise Massey, associate professor in the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology, presenting “How Pastoral Care-Giver can Contribute to Palliative Care;” and Elaine Harris, associate professor of nursing, and Ann Keeley, associate professor of nursing, who will present “‘Can You Help Me Find My Bus Ticket?’ Understanding the Communications of Those Who Are Dying.”

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