I recently attended an End-of-Life Expo. Organized by Washington, DC-based IONA Senior Services, a highly respected nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of aging persons, its notice about the expo tweaked my interest: “When you express how you want to die, you reveal how you want to live.”
The day-long expo offered 12 sessions from dementia planning and organ and body donations to writing your own obituary and DC’s Death With Dignity Act. (In 2016 the District of Columbia joined seven other jurisdictions* and enacted a Death with Dignity law that enables terminally ill DC residents to take their own lives with two doctors’ approvals and after meeting a host of other requirements.) More on this below.
The meeting spaces were filled to capacity and late registrants were wait-listed. Attendance at most sessions was standing room only. The speakers were well-prepared and engaging.
My first session focused on writing one’s own obituary. What a great idea! Instead of having your relatives hurriedly piece together a summary of your life, why not do it yourself before you die? It takes a weight off your loved ones who may be absorbed with de-cluttering your home or coping with unanticipated financial complications. I didn’t know that (at least in Washington, DC) one has to pay a line-by-line charge for their obituary notice to appear in The Washington Post. By writing my own obit, it will contain what I want included.
Another session dealt with starting and talking about life and death matters. Drawing on “The Conversation Project,” a project of writer Ellen Goodman, the speaker offered suggestions for initiating and engaging loved ones in learning one’s end-of-life wishes: Do I want doctors to take heroic measures to extend my terminally ill life for a few weeks, or do I want to die without tubes and wires sprouting from my body — all working to add a few days or weeks to my diminishing time on earth?
The Death with Dignity session was the most attended. People need clarity on what the Act permits. For example, one has to be terminally ill and in the last six months of their lives to qualify for lawfully taking their own life. A person with dementia cannot take her own life. Only persons with “the ability to make and communicate health care decisions to health care providers” qualify for this program. Other provisions call for the terminally ill to submit a written and witnessed request to his attending physician before a “covered medication” can be prescribed; that the cause of death is the illness the patient suffered from NOT suicide; and the terminally ill person must ingest the lethal medication by him or herself without assistance from a medical professional.
Clearly many people are hungry for this information. They want to know how to die, not just when they’ll expire. Professionals in the aging arena should not underestimate people’s desire to learn more about what to expect as illness takes its toll and the need to prepare for death looms larger on the horizon.
Congratulations to IONA Senior Services for coming up with this remarkable program. It’s time comparable organizations and government agencies begin preparing us for the final season of our lives.
* Vermont, Colorado, California, New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii, and Maine
Lynn Rosen says
Let’s stop assuming that this kind of planning is solely for ageing adults. Last year my 36 y/o step son was instantly killed in an avalanche. Despite his lifetime of enjoying adrenaline-stimulating sports we never had conversations about what his preferences would be. In a sense we were fortunate that he died instantly, sparing us the agonizing decisions a seriously traumatic accident would have brought forward.
While I understand the target audience of your work I also believe that you’ve created models of information sharing that are useful for all demographics. How great would it be for you and, for instance, IONA House, to co-sponsor a workshop for high school kids. There are definitely areas of the metro-DC area where young people are tragically aware of their possibility of dying young. How might their lives be touched by considering the writing of their own obit?
And what about young couples, parents of young families? The two of you are well connected across many communities and could begin bringing forward compassionate and useful conversations. I’m cheering you on!