Longtime resident subject of new documentary
Laurie Blumenfeld describes her late mother, Joan, as a firecracker.
Joan, a former Westport resident, was a competitive ballroom dancer and world traveler. She took weekly ballet and Pilates classes and worked at her own elderly care management firm through her eighties.
Blumenfeld stayed active even after she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in August 2016 at 84. She didn’t slow down until a couple months before her death at 85 on July 22, 2017.
Even after her death, Blumenfeld’s spirit remains active. On Oct. 4, the Connecticut Geriatrics Society will host “Living With Palliative Care,” an educational program based on a documentary of the same name following Blumenfeld’s end of life journey.
“She’s always been a sassy, world-traveling, energetic person and honestly, I think she was the epitome of making lemonade out of lemons,” said Laurie Blumenfeld, Joan’s youngest child. “Not many people would take their diagnosis and turn it into an opportunity to help other people and help people understand how important quality of life can be.”
The film focuses on the last several months of Blumenfeld’s life and the significance of palliative care, which focuses on the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of someone diagnosed with a serious illness. The movie came to be with the help of Connecticut-based gerontologist and Blumenfeld’s longtime friend, Donna Fedus.
“There are so many misconceptions about palliative care,” Fedus said. “People confuse palliative care with hospice. Hospice is end of life care. Palliative care can be started with a serious diagnosis. Joan’s experience with learning about palliative care is really when I learned about it. It really evolved in an incredible way.”
Fedus and Blumenfeld met when Blumenfeld was a student in a course on aging Fedus teaches. The two became friends and worked together to educate others about aging and elderly care. When Blumenfeld was diagnosed, she began a form of treatment that sent her into kidney failure. Once she recovered, she told Fedus she wanted to use her experience to educate others.
“I’m recovering and full of ideas for how to use this nasty experience in the most constructive of ways,” Blumenfeld wrote in an email to Fedus.
Fedus and Blumenfeld worked on guest lectures and continuing education programs about Blumenfeld’s experience. Fedus also reached out to her sister and film producer Lauren Lewis about documenting Blumenfeld’s journey on film for when her disease prevented her from teaching. Sue Sweitzer, a good friend who worked in palliative care, also joined the team.
“Living With Palliative Care” started filming in March. It shows Blumenfeld’s journey from the perspective of herself and her family. There are scenes with Blumenfeld’s doctors at Norwalk Hospital, as well as the chaplain there, Kaye May, who later officiated Blumenfeld’s funeral. There also are shots of Blumenfeld meeting with her three children, as well as her ruminations on life in the month before she died.
Fedus said she learned a lot about palliative care while following Blumenfeld’s journey, including how insistent some medical professionals can be in pushing curative treatments. Blumenfeld knew she didn’t want curative treatment due to concerns over quality of life. Still, she and her doctors had to push against treatments like swallowing a camera to find the source of a gastrointestinal bleed.
“Something that surprised me was the fact that medicine is not further along in thinking about the whole person, what they want and providing medicine in a way that’s consistent with what the patient wants,” Fedus said. “I feel far too often patients are pushed into treatments by well-meaning physicians who assume everyone wants everything.”
While many patients want treatment to extend their lives, Blumenfeld’s care focused on pain and symptom management. A huge part was spiritual and emotional. Blumenfeld, who identified as Jewish, spoke to a chaplain at the end of her life to help understand her life’s journey and her spirituality.
“Joan said after talking with Kaye (the Norwalk Hospital chaplain), ‘I realize my soul is in good shape,’ ” Fedus said. “That was news to her and it was really something that brought her a lot of comfort. Joan was an 85-year-old woman who turned away from religion, but it is this idea of relating to something bigger than yourself.”
Blumenfeld also tended to her emotional needs by having her three children around her before she died. Laurie Blumenfeld said her mother had 24-hour, in-home care so her children, Laurie, Eric and Karen, could focus on family time instead of caring for her. As a result, Laurie Blumenfeld said her family was “closer than ever” during her mom’s final days.
The in-home caretakers “were there to help her with whatever she needed, whether it was running errands or tracking her pills,” Laurie Blumenfeld said. “It allowed us as children to spend quality time with her. My mom knew that and never wanted us to feel burdened. She wanted us to have as joyful a time as possible together. Their help was astronomical in allowing us to have quality time and know if we couldn’t get there, she was in good care.”
“Living With Palliative Care” is in post-production, but clips will be shown at the Oct. 4 program at the Norwalk Inn. Fedus hopes the film will be finished by the end of the year. It’ll be used to educate patients, family and medical providers about palliative care.
“A few months before she died, our mother told us that an important purpose in her life was to educate other people, using her own experiences as the basis for her teachings,” said Blumenfeld’s oldest daughter, Karen. “She followed this principle throughout her life. In fact, a friend of hers once remarked, ‘Joan, whenever life gives you lemons you turn them into a career.’ True to form, she used her experiences with lung cancer as a platform to learn everything she could about palliative care, and then to teach others about its benefits through volunteering, lecturing and the creation of a film.”