This year I read a book entitled, “Being Mortal” by Dr. Atul Gwande. I don’t remember who recommended it to me, but it articulated many of my observations, experiences, and feelings based on my decision to pursue a career in nursing. When I was a 20 year old student, I was assigned to care for individuals with incurable diseases, unexpected injuries, or sudden death. It didn’t take long for me to discard the invincibility mindset that is typical of younger people. It made me a believer that death and dying is real and doesn’t always give a warning notice or only happen to the elderly.
Our society promotes denial of these realities by removing everyone except health care professionals from the unpleasant sights and chores associated with taking care of a deteriorating or expiring body. I worked in a nursing home the last three years of my career. This experience made it impossible to deny the many scenarios that can be present at the end of life. For those outside the health field, the initial brush with death usually results from a health crisis within the family. We are rudely awakened from our denial by a tsunami of issues that we have never contemplated.
We are unprepared for all the questions that haven’t been addressed and decisions that must be made while in crisis mode. Now, we have to deal with the problem and want information, even if we are frightened of the subject matter.
If we are uncomfortable with someone else’s death, the thought of examining or preparing for our own death is too startling to consider. Unfortunately, this ostrich approach robs us of having any control on the setting where we will be treated, the type of care we might receive, or determination of our preferences regarding how intensive we want our treatment to be. The legal and financial chaos our irresponsibility causes may take years to untangle.
So, I increasingly wonder why we are so reluctant to find an expert in end of life that would be the equivalent of a CPA to help us with our taxes. As the saying goes, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Both are inevitable experiences. To seek an expert to assist with our personal tax issues is considered intelligent. Having an expert help guide us through the end of life paperwork and questions is avoided and almost viewed superstitiously as casting an unpleasant spell that will make our death more imminent.
Just try to have a conversation with someone about whether they have stated their preferences for their last days, or if their will or advance directives are completed. This will quickly result in a change of topic.
So we remain a people uncomfortable talking about the subject of dying, even with those we love the most. Being an informed patient, having all documentation in place and having it shared with relatives or our surrogate decision-makers prior to a crisis, can make our life and everyone else’s much less stressful. It may be our greatest gift to our children.
We all know that in a matter of minutes the world as we know it can be shattered. One phone call can confirm an incurable disease or notify that a loved one was killed in an automobile accident. Yet we deny the fact that the mortality rate for EVERYONE is 100%.
If illness or death occurs in our circle of acquaintances, we frequently feel very uncomfortable about what to say or do. So, we frequently avoid them and say nothing. This leaves our closest friends and relatives isolated and feeling lonely in a time of desperate need to talk about their deepest hurts and concerns.
I encourage everyone to “suck it up” and get the facts, paperwork, and skills to be a better decision-maker regarding their own critical life decisions and learn to be better communicators with all those individuals most dear to us. Come join The Women’s Information Network, Inc. on September 27, 2016 for our workshop entitled: “Life: The Final Chapter….Write Your Own Ending.” This seminar is designed to provide the documents that need completion, ways to communicate about this topic and resources in our community to provide assistance when needed. For more information go to www.infoforwomen.org Registration is $20. Students $10.
Sharon Baker is a member of the Georgia Commission on Women. She is a retired nurse practitioner and is President and Founder of the Women’s Information Network, Inc. She lives in Rome, Georgia.