Personhood in Terminal Illness

Dr. Saul Ebema

Personhood is defined as, being a subject with say over one’s body, emotions, decisions, and life goals. For many, it includes one’s role or relationships in a family or community.

In the face of multiple losses and increased dependence on others for basic needs, someone who is terminally ill may feel as if he/she is not the same person. Sometimes that person feels as if he/she is not a person at all, but just a sick body.

Severe threats to personhood include,

  • Loss of value in life
  • Loss of purpose
  • Loss of identity and occasionally, this threat to identity may motivate suicidal ideation

Hospice chaplains as spiritual care givers can help a lot in situations like this because spiritual care helps to sustain someone’s personhood. It aims to sustain one’s sense of being a person with value, dignity, and worth.

These simple but often overlooked strategies may be employed to help sustain the patient’s sense of personhood:

  • Talk to the ill person rather than about them in their presence, even if they are not capable of complete understanding
  • Ask persons how they are doing or feeling before focusing on specific medical problems
  • Explore what it is that helps that person feel like a human being rather than just a“case” or “patient”
  • Acknowledge that this person is someone special, affirmation goes a long way in helping someone sustain personhood.
  • Offer choices and help persons identify areas where they can have some say to compensate for the tremendous loss of control and independence that accompanies a progressive terminal illness

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