“Getting old is not for sissies!”
Truer words were never spoken. Some of us are blessed, whether by strong genes, healthy lifestyles or, perhaps, some combination of the two, and we live long, vital, engaged lives and then pass away swiftly. One day here, gardening, golfing, walking on the beach and the next day, gone. The statistics seem to indicate, however, that more often than not, our aging and dying follow a very different trajectory filled with disability, illness, dementia, lengthy hospitalizations or living in institutions needing 24/7 care.
One Point Roberts family had the wisdom to gather an elderly mom and dad, four middle-aged siblings and their respective spouses in January of this year. None of the adult children live close by, in fact, the closest ones are in Vancouver, B.C. but they all drove to Point Roberts so that they could sit around the dining table with documents and helpful guides and talk their way through the questions and the answers. They cried. They laughed. They disagreed. They listened. They found common ground. They uncovered their parents’ concerns, their hopes, their desires– as well as their own. They wrote it all down. They discussed it until they all came to understanding and a willingness to agree and to act upon their mom’s and dad’s wishes.
Just a few short weeks later, the dad had the first of a series of serious medical incidents requiring air transport to the hospital. Covid-19 complicated everything for everyone. Then the mom fell and injured her shoulder, making it impossible to drive or prepare meals. There were lots of decisions to make, actions to take and challenges to overcome to provide the care and assistance their parents needed. There was lots of stress, but they were spared those emotionally-charged conversations about what to do, when, how and by whom should life and death decisions be called.
Fortunately, both are now doing quite well thanks to family members being able to come and stay and lots of help from neighbors, friends and community with rides, meals, chores, etc. Everyone is optimistic that those January decisions will not be needed for the foreseeable future.
In contrast, we have many seniors living here on their own with no family within a drive of two or more hours. If the research is accurate, most of us have not prepared the essential documents or had these conversations with our families. In some cases, friends are the only “family” that some have. We may, or may not, have the financial resources to care for ourselves. If you are married or in a partnership, your partner may be unwilling to have the conversation. There are lots of complicating and extenuating circumstances that make sitting down with our loved ones, both family or friends, difficult and challenging.
It all begins with you, however, getting clear with yourself and you can start that process now.
Fortunately, there are lots of resources that will help you start those conversations, get clarity with yourself and with your loved ones and get the job done. PeaceHealth offers an online webinar that will help you navigate the “Honoring Choices” document. The “40/70 Aging Plan” is an extensive booklet that is both provocative and pragmatic. For those who would prefer to do this non-digitally, “Five Wishes” is a booklet that prompts your responses with questions and explanations.
It is important to let family and friends know that you have completed these documents and where they are kept. PeaceHealth is a local repository for these documents. You can forward your documents to them and they will be kept in confidence on your behalf. Instructions for forwarding them are on the website listed below. Keep a hard copy at home in a file, as well, but how will first responders or family know which drawer or filing cabinet? Our fire department offers residents a Vial of Life, which is a container full of information such as emergency contacts and advanced care directives to be kept for handy reference on your refrigerator. A sticker for your front door or the refrigerator will alert them to look there and you can put a note in the Vial directing them to the location of your documents.
What is most important is to begin the process today. You can start by going to the websites and resources listed below. Pick up the phone and call a friend or family member and let them know that you want to begin, set a date with them to get together over a cup of tea or coffee (socially distanced, of course) and read through a set of the documents. Make notes, fill in the information that you can and then set another date to complete the forms. Hopefully those documents won’t be needed (you’ll be one of the lucky ones who goes peacefully in your sleep!) or at least not needed for a long time. It will be a load off your mind and that of your family to know that when the time comes, all of you are prepared with well-considered, thoughtful decisions based upon your values and wishes.
For more information check out these resources: