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What Is a Doula?

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

A doula is an advocate, supporter, and guide.
A doula is like a trail guide. They know the path. They keep you hiking through the hard parts because they know the view at the end is incredible. – Author Unknown

The word ‘dou·la’ is an ancient concept that has recently been revived in American culture. It is most commonly associated with infant labor and delivery. A ‘birth doula’ is just one of many options available when expecting a child. They are subject-matter experts that plan, advocate, and guide the entire process for the expectant mother, offering support for a smooth experience. A quick internet search shows endless options for birth ranging from various insurances, places, times, methods, audience, announcements, celebrations, and gifts. Perhaps most poignant is the general attitude towards birth: celebratory and free from stigma. Unfortunately, these things are lacking at the latter end of the lifespan during the labor of aging, sickness, and dying. In ancient Greece, the word ‘dou·la’ simply meant a person who serves. In modern language, it is akin to servant-leadership. The perspective of a doula is holistic, meaning everything that makes the whole person. Whether at the beginning or the end of the lifespan, standard of care should involve much more than just medical intervention. The professional doula is also preparing for the emotional, financial, spiritual, and existential aspects of the journey. Doulas that serve older adults are educated and practice in a variety of fields. There are lifespan doulas who act as a type of life-coach through the whole season. There are also specific events that a doula may specialize in like: Medicare, Medicaid, living with dementia, cancer diagnoses, end of life, or deathbed vigil. At each part of the journey, a professional doula acts as a liaison towards your decisions for your quality of life. For example, a doula works very well as an extension of your other care providers. Medical providers like homecare or hospice come and do assessments, treatments, and education, but they can’t stay for long periods. A doula may fill the gaps in physical caregiving, planning, or perhaps manage other caregivers in a scheduled plan. In my practice, I like to think of it like a football team. The client is the quarterback, and they are the star of the show. The primary contact, perhaps a family member, is the coach who watches every decision and is active in every play. As a doula, I am the microphone in their ear explaining, cheering, and encouraging them through the plays I already know so well. In the mix there are many other roles, but the doula in the headset is the voice of experience; the voice that helps you navigate well, avoid hazards, and bring home the victory.

Katlyn Clifton is a Gerontologist in Sumner County, Tennessee. Her scope of practice begins with those 64+ with education in initial Medicare enrollment and spans the developmental stages of aging, progressing into vigil during the active dying process including ritual and funeral implementation. Contact Katlyn at


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