Pope Francis grasps hands of older man during general audience in St. Peter's Square at Vatican

End-of-life care training informs on Catholic teaching


When the Iowa bishops initiated Supportive Care Iowa in the spring of 2016, its main goal was to provide the tools and education necessary for parishioners to make informed decisions on end-of-life care based on Catholic teaching.

Terri Prenger, a representative of the Diocese of Sioux City who serves on the Iowa Catholic Conference’s Supportive Care Iowa Committee, explained the project seeks to reinforce the Catholic value of “all life has dignity.”

“With the physician-assisted suicide bills being introduced into the state legislature, the bishops called for more positive reinforcement on end-of-life issues to be taught at the parish level,” she said. “Suicide is not the answer and goes against God’s plan for us.”

In 2015, as legislative proposals for doctor-prescribed assisted suicide became more prevalent, Iowa bishops formed an end-of-life care workgroup to submit recommendations to them on the best ways to educate Catholic parishioners and personnel at Catholic health care institutions.

Some of the approved recommendations included holding webinars and in-person meetings for parish nurses and other key personnel, training consultants to assist parishioners on a one-on-one basis with advance care planning, offering presentations on end-of-life decision making and advance directives in parishes along with directing education efforts toward medical professionals to increase knowledge of the church’s teaching on the subject.

Prenger pointed out that St. Anthony Regional Hospital in Carroll hosted a training session on health care ethics and life issues on April 24 that was presented by Dr. Janine Idziak of Loras College in Dubuque. She is helping the bishops establish the Supportive Care Iowa program and training volunteers around the state who can visit with individuals and families to talk about end-of-life care that is in line with Catholic values.

The presentation in Carroll, noted Prenger, drew several deacons and their wives, a priest and various healthcare workers from both St. Anthony Hospital and nursing homes. Those who went through this training can then serve as consultants to educate others on end-of-life decisions.

Kathy Steffen of Boone, who is married to Deacon Scott Steffen, decided to attend the session to learn about how to share about planning for end-of-life.

“I have a background in healthcare and have worked with clients who would have benefited from this information as they prepared for death,” she said. “And we all have family members who could use this information as well.”

Medical ethics, Steffen noted, is an area of interest she developed during her professional training as a physical therapist.

“Medical decision making fits into ethics and is also becoming a critical area of education for the general public,” she explained. “Proponents of assisted suicide are pushing strongly in our state to change the perception of suicide. It is important for us as members of our Catholic Church to understand the teaching on assisted suicide and how detrimental it is to life. This is an area of life that many parishes could benefit from further discussion and education on the topic.”

The class, Prenger added, was very informative and showed how many ways to approach compassionate care especially when dealing with pain management.

“The most important thing is to have a trusted person who is your advocate and knows your wishes,” she said, explaining how an individual’s “medical power of attorney” would speak for you if you are not in a position to make decisions for yourself. Having this advocate, Prenger noted, can be more important than having a living will.

“There is absolutely no living will that can cover all possibilities or issues that might arise in the future, so having an advocate is in your best interest,” explained Prenger, who is married to Deacon Dave Prenger.

While details of how the Supportive Care Iowa project will unfold in this diocese have yet to be worked out, she noted by fall they would like to offer information sessions at the parish level with consultants, priests, parish nurses and health care professionals presenting the material.

In the meantime, Prenger said a good resource for information is The National Catholic Center for Bioethics.

“I think it cannot be stressed enough that everyone, of any age, should be talking about this with their families,” she said. “Tell them what you want. Look at the possibilities out there to ensure that your wishes are formed by Catholic teaching and have it written down for your family. Emergency situations are not the time to try and have that discussion.”


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