Here’s an important article in the New York Times Opinionator Column by Ellen Goodman, one of the founders of The Conversation Project (which I’m about to investigate further). Note her comment that she expected her mother’s doctors to tell her what to do. The families of our residents are expecting the same from us.
I was 25 when I flew home for my father’s last birthday. His cancer had returned and he would die three months later at the age of 57. What I remember most about that weekend was the large rectangular gift box he opened. My mother had bought him a new suitcase.
I don’t know if that suitcase qualifies my family for the Denial Hall of Fame. There are so many contenders for that honor. But I’ve carried the psychic baggage over the years. I have never forgotten that image and how we lost a chance to say goodbye. I still wonder if my father was lonely in the silence that surrounded our inability to talk about what we all knew.
Decades later my mother began a long slow decline. By then, I was a newspaper columnist, a job that I often described as “telling people what you think.” I was professionally outspoken. But little had changed since my father’s death.
Yes, my mother and I talked about everything — but we didn’t talk about how she wanted to live toward the end. The closest we ever came to discussing her wishes was when she would see someone in dire straits and say, “If I’m ever like that, pull the plug.” But most of the time there is no plug to pull.
Gradually and painfully, my mother lost what the doctors call “executive function,” as if she were a C.E.O. fumbling with Excel spreadsheets, not a 92-year-old who couldn’t turn on the television or make a phone call. Eventually, she couldn’t decide what she wanted for lunch, let alone for medical care.
In some recess of my mind, I still assumed that death came in the way we used to think of as “natural.” I thought that doctors were the ones who would tell us what needed to be done. I was strangely unprepared, blindsided by the cascading number of decisions that fell to me in her last years.
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