New death survey reveals our fears 

According to the preliminary results of a community survey conducted by the Missoula Demonstration Project: The Quality of Life’s End, the attitudes of Missoulians concerning death and dying are sometimes dichotomous: We are open to talking about death, but only if somebody asks us to discuss it; and while we dread a painful death, we balk at taking pain medication.

Kaye Norris, research manager for MDP, says the collected data reflects the overall message that, as a community, Missoula is doing a “pretty good job” confronting end-of-life issues, but there is still room for improvement.

The surveys were distributed to a random sample of Missoula County residents by mail, and over 60 percent responded. Among the more interesting findings is that, though 50 percent of those surveyed reported a moderate to severe apprehension of dying painfully, more than one-third of respondents believe pain medication should only be taken when pain is extreme. Slightly less than one-third are convinced that most people taking pain medication will become addicted.

“Our culture is so focused on a drug-free world,” Norris says. “The fear of addiction and intense regulations make it hard for doctors to prescribe opioids to treat pain. And there is also fear on the part of doctors that they could be sued if they overprescribe morphine to the point that the patient dies.”

Norris believes the solution to unfamiliarity about pain management is educating the medical community and the public alike. Thanks to MDP’s research and activism, she says, St. Patrick Hospital now includes “degree of pain” as one of the five vital signs, along with things like heart rate and blood pressure, used to assess incoming patients.

“With this kind of participation and collaboration between the community and medical institutions, the end result will be phenomenal, but it will take time,” Spring states.

Another cause for concern is the survey finding that over 90 percent of Missoulians are capable of discussing death, but only 54 percent would be willing to phone or visit a grieving loved one. Again, Norris believes these numbers reflect ignorance more than ill will.

These are the types of issues MDP will continue to report on and which will be the basis of continuing community dialogue, Spring adds. And other communities are joining the discussion, requesting materials from MDP to conduct their own similar studies.

“We can never take the sorrow out of death,” Spring notes, “but we can make it easier if we work together.”

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