My best friend in Sacramento sent me a link yesterday morning about (Dr.) Atul Gawande’s latest book: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Thanks Liz! This title is also inspired by a couple other occurrences too – Halloween and Day of the Dead are approaching soon and this weekend I will be going up for a training flight in a spiffy Cirrus SR22.
I tend to equate thinking about death and practicing dying a little every day (letting go of attachments to what appears to be the status quo) with being alive. Some folks would question my orientation, but I believe thinking about our mortality is far from morose and gloomy, rather it reminds us that our time here is limited and precious! Death denial has all kinds of costs associated with it. Because I am a lawyer, I am more familiar with the legal aspects of denying death (it won’t happen to me, you can’t make me decide what I want, etc.) but there are manifold aspects.
So, I’ll get back on track with Dr. Gawande’s latest book. No, I haven’t ordered it yet, but I did watch the clip from his interview by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. I liked the interview, which was a great overview of the present-day dilemma of aging Americans.
What I found refreshing was that Dr. Gawande was looking carefully at how doctors ask their patients questions about health care values, medical wishes and end-of-life choices. One might think this is common for doctors, but it is sadly quite uncommon, unless you are talking about the palliative or hospice care docs. Dr. Gawande had personal experience to draw on for his writing – with his mother-in-law and also his father, who went to hospice care. But there is still much resistance among doctors (even those who would choose hospice care for themselves) to discuss hospice and palliative care with a patient.
A few things came to mind after watching the short clip. First, I will continue my policy of pressing further when a client states “my son is a doctor, so he can make these difficult choices for me” – with my response that medical know-how does not translate into emotional capacity to make difficult decisions on another’s behalf. Next, his observation that it is anxiety about our death which cripples us and leads us to bad decisions. This cries out for attention in the form of a readily available fix . . . . click here for helpful materials in pdf format from The Conversation Project (I’ve already run out of them at my office)! Lastly, the importance of advance planning – at minimum a medical durable power of attorney along with a discussion of wishes with the selected agent – is best done when someone is healthy and well, before the scary subject of end of life care is actually on one’s medical radar. If we can somehow “normalize” this conversation about dying, we can neutralize much of the anxiety around this topic.
Beyond the emotional costs are also the financial and ethical costs. In the past we sometimes called these measures heroic, but the connotation was misleading at best. The term used now is “futile.” What is the definition of “futility” in medical terms? Here’s a helpful article from the Mayo Clinic with some contextual definitions of the term. Over the past several years, much has been made of a perceived government agenda concerning “rationing” of care, but is it the government’s responsibility to decide how much or what kind of heath care we receive? Is it our doctor’s responsibility to decide if we aren’t prepared to make a decision? No and no! It is our own responsibility to decide, for ourselves and to our loved ones, especially when we do not wish either to be a burden or to be tortured.
How do we make those difficult decisions when we are incapable? Well, if we have a medical power of attorney, that is best place to start. We can also execute advance directives to help solidify the wishes we have communicated to our agent and other loved ones. Our collective inability to have “the conversation” about health care and end of life wishes costs us dearly – both the patient who didn’t choose in advance and our community, which must collectively bear the cost of such care.
So I will close this post with the theme of festivals and holidays honoring the dead, here are a few of them:
- Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day)
- El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) (the Mexican version of #4)
- All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Catholic)
- Bon Festival (Japan)
- Chuseok (South Korea)
- Gaijatra (Nepal)
- Qingming Festival (China)
- Pitru Paksha (Hindu)
This list is neither authoritative nor exhaustive. Bottom line here for purposes of this list – remember the dead by honoring life in the here and know and by expressing love to those you care about while you are able (including having “the conversation” and getting documents in place to memorialize it)!
©Barbara Cashman 2014 www.DenverElderLaw.org