Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Member of NHPCO’s Leadership Team Shares Thoughts on Death(ly) Panels

I spent Memorial Day Weekend with a group of Cub Scouts ranging in age from six to 11. My son, who is eleven, was excited to be “crossing the bridge” from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. The formal ritual, which involved his Den leader saying some nice words about his growth and older Boy Scouts welcoming him to their midst, was an important milestone in my son’s life. He isn’t a little kid any more, he’s a teenager. I have no idea when that happened.

Nor do I know the specific moment when I became the adult caregiver of my mother, who turns 80 this year and has been in good physical and mental shape for years. Yet it hasn’t been easy. The death of her two sisters within six months of one another and two knee replacements surgeries of her own during those difficult months left her exhausted as well as emotionally and physically frail. I flew to Florida to visit her in the facility where she is receiving rehab, arranged for non-medical aides to help her when she moved back home and spent a few days with her so she wouldn’t be alone. This was an important milestone for me as an adult daughter. My responsibility level has increased and there really isn’t any going back.

As adults we experience multiple milestones – planned and unplanned – that mark our progression through life. One day we are happily single and the next we’re in a committed relationship. We’re childless and then become parents in a few short months. We are healthy and the next day we’re told we have a potentially life-limiting illness. It all happens so fast and there’s little we can do to slow down this inevitable march onward, through life’s stages.

We can’t stop it, even though many people try to slow down the aging process through surgery, exercise, nutrition or just plain denial. We can save money for our kids’ education. We can put money away for retirement. But eventually we’re all going to face the fact that we’re all mortal. Even as aware as we all are that we will die some day, we do little to plan for it.

When there is a healthcare crisis, which happens to so many people, we are unprepared, as are our families. We haven’t thought about the type of care we want or don’t want. We haven’t selected someone to speak for us if we can’t talk to the doctors ourselves. We haven’t told anyone whether we would or would not want to be kept alive through medical interventions if the chance of recovery was slim. We haven’t planned properly to make sure we are in control during what might be the last phase of our life.

My son is now memorizing all the Boy Scout pledges, laws and mottos in preparation for his first meeting. To me the most important one, besides “do a good turn every day,” is the one that is best known and yet universally most ignored – “be prepared.”

You can’t avoid the last milestone in life. Hopefully you won’t face it for many years to come. But it will happen, in some shape or form, to all of us. Take a lesson from my son, be prepared. Download a free advance directive, read it through and talk about with your doctor and family members, sign it and give copies to folks who will need it during a crisis. Take control of the phase of your life before that milestone creeps up on you and catches you unprepared.

GUEST BLOGGER: Kathy Brandt, MS, the Senior Vice President, Office of Education and Engagement at the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, is a passionate believer in the need to plan for, talk about, and document end-of-life care wishes, and the proud mother of an amazing eleven year Boy Scout.

1 comment:

Frances Shani Parker said...

Your post has come at a good time. I have a friend in her late thirties who is entering a milestone in her life now, but she doesn’t know it. Her father was recently in a serious accident that has left him struggling in long-term rehab as part of his recovery.

My friend has repeatedly expressed how difficult it is for her to accept that her father is no longer the vibrant man she has always known. As she mourns what he has lost, she does not fully realize that she is in the beginning stage of being a long-term caregiver and all that will entail. Thanks for reminding me to discuss this with her in the context of being a milestone in which she will learn to embrace her father in vibrant new ways.