Last Thursday evening I gathered with members of my community at the Kennebunk Town Hall for an important conversation with Ellen Goodman, a former Globe columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and founder of The Conversation Project. She spoke to a packed audience full of health care professionals, senior citizens and their families. The Conversation Project is a national campaign to help people talk about their wishes for the end of their lives, including end of life care.
As Ellen spoke about her experience with her own mother, I realized how easy my mother made our lives, even in her death. We did have “The Conversation,” and we had it many times. For as long as I can remember our mother was telling us what her wishes were for after she died. Mom grew up on the coast of Maine and loved the ocean. She wanted to be cremated and have her ashes “brought to sea by a lobster man on a real working lobster boat”. She wanted all of her most precious possessions to be returned to whichever child the gift had come from. All other items were to be donated or sold and divided up between the four of us. She had a small life insurance policy to cover the cost of her funeral. When she went into the hospital with a brain tumor, she called for a Social Worker and with all of us at her bedside appointed my oldest sister her Durable Power of Attorney, but was again very clear that we all knew what her wishes were. She made it through brain surgery just fine. When she died suddenly two years later at the young age of 68, we were all grief stricken, but what eased our burden was knowing just what to do. We were able to grieve without any regret, guilt, or uncertainty. We carried out her wishes just as she wanted, a final gift she gave us and we gave her. We were able to say goodbye with closure.
Although my mother died suddenly, so often this is not the case. Our medical technology has become so advanced, that a long, good life can be extended and sometimes prolonged far beyond long and good. Too often in my work as a Medical Social Worker I listened to families in despair at trying to decide what their parent would want because they could no longer speak for themselves. I watched siblings who could have been supporting each other, often confused, and angry with each other.
The Conversation Project hopes to spark cultural “change at the kitchen table-not in the intensive care unit”(1). By going to their website www.theconversationproject.org you can learn more about the conversations including information on appointing a Health Care Proxy/Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare which is a representative to speak for you, and completing a Living Will which explains what medical care you want at the end of your life, should you not be able to speak for yourself. The Conversation Kit, which you can download, gives facts and questions to ask ourselves and our loved ones, tips on how to start the conversation and what topics might come up or that you might want to bring up. During Ellen’s presentation we also watched a clip from ABC News with Diane Sawyer of a real conversation between a family of multiple generations. This and other peoples’ stories and wishes can be seen at http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Conversation/.
The first conversation might feel uncomfortable, but once started it may become the first of many. It gets easier and often ends up bringing families closer together. When end of life discussions are had, and decisions are made, people often feel a sense of relief about the future, which leaves us free to live our lives fully in the present.