Dinner and Stories: Caring for the Caregivers

Betty R. Ferrell, PhD, RN


June 28, 2019

"Caring for the caregivers" is gaining traction as an important issue for healthcare providers faced with the overwhelming needs of a growing population—those who are living with serious illness. Taking this one step further, self-care strategies for clinicians, including such creative endeavors as journaling and storytelling, are among the keys to burnout prevention.

A novel project adds the dimension of sharing one's creative efforts with other healthcare professionals.[1] In "Dinner and Stories," an interdisciplinary group of healthcare professionals wrote stories about a "lingering experience" of providing care to patients with serious illness, including those at the end of life. A "lingering experience" is an apt descriptor of the memories held long after an emotionally intense clinical interaction with patients and families. The healthcare professionals who participated in this project then met in small groups for dinner and story- sharing. Four themes about self-care emerged from these interactions:

  • The need for a self-care culture; institutional support and the absence of institutional priorities in caring for caregivers

  • The healing power of reflective storytelling and writing

  • Co-creating layers of connection, which fosters emotional support and conviviality

  • Preferring face-to-face contact; too many challenges exist with online/virtual contact

A Lifeline to 'Drowning' Clinicians

The "drowning" of clinicians in the care of seriously ill and dying patients has become a major focus in healthcare, as has the recognition of the need for self-care strategies to sustain clinicians in their daily work. This impressive project extends a lifeline, combining personal writing and reflection with the sharing of these highly personal stories in small dinner groups. The methods used are also impressive, combining data from the written stories, online forum discussions, in-depth participant interviews, and host facilitator field notes.

To tell a story establishes a relationship, and unless we humans trust that a relationship can be established, we can't tell stories-it's like trying to breathe under water. To press that metaphor, where once I saw patients drowning, now I see all kinds of medical workers drowning. [2]

The four insightful themes that emerged in this project offer direction for future efforts to support clinicians. One participant described the creation and storytelling experience as "breaking bread," using the religious metaphor of coming together for a mutual experience of sharing both food and personal stories. In creating layers of connection, the participants recognized their common bonds and experiences as clinicians. And the project revealed that participants value in-person sharing more than virtual contact.

This project serves as a model for others who wish to support staff involved in caring for very ill and dying patients. As others have noted,[3,4,5,6] self-care of staff is the very foundation for the care of patients and families.


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