In a recent interview, Dr. Ira Byock, palliative care physician and author of Dying Well, stated:
This is really the most important issue we face -- this is what it means to be human ... At the moment in which we are holding the torch for civilization, in a sense, we have to say it matters how we care for people at the end-of-life.
If you are concerned at all about your own end-of-life or how your parents and your children will be cared for when they die, you understand the urgency behind Dr. Byock's words. We need to transform the way people die in our country and we need to begin that process now.
Our current abysmal statistics in end-of-life care (70 percent of Americans say they would prefer to die at home, but only 25 percent actually do) are the result of multi-layered issues that are societal, cultural, medical, economical, financial, and political in nature. So how can we make a difference? How can we even begin to change such a vast and complex system?
The simple answer is to start wherever you are, in your own backyard, so to speak. While we may not be able to singlehandedly transform the death industry in our country, each one of us can do something in our lives and our own communities to make a difference. We just have to be creative and strongly motivated to implement change.
The very first step we can take is in some ways the most important: we must lift the veil of denial that overshadows death and dying in our society and begin to have open, healthy, inspiring conversations about the end-of-life. If you would like to work toward better end-of-life care, here are some action steps you can take to begin the forward momentum right now, in your own surroundings:
1. Plan a "Death Over Dinner" event.
Invite your friends and family for dinner and a conversation about death. The Death Over Dinner website has tools to help you plan your event including wording for your invitation and a selection of audio or written content for your guests to check out before they arrive for dinner. Start with the Death Over Dinner website and get the assistance you need to plan your event.
2. Start a "Death Café" in your neighborhood.
Consider starting your own Death Cafe -- an informal gathering of strangers to talk about death and dying. You don't need to have any particular training to host a Death Cafe and there is no agenda for the meetings. Check out the Death Cafe website for their guidelines for starting a Death Cafe or attend End-of-Life University's Virtual Death Cafe to learn more.
3. Start an End-of-Life Book Club.
Create a monthly book club that meets in a local library or bookstore to read and discuss books about the end-of-life. There are dozens and dozens of excellent books out there that you will enjoy reading and that will spark fascinating discussions. Some books (like What Really Matters) feature a reader's guide you can use to lead your group discussion. Check out the recommended reading lists from EOL University and Seven Ponds to get started.
4. Teach a "Five Wishes" Workshop.
Help people in your community complete a Five Wishes document by planning and facilitating a workshop to talk them through the process step-by-step. You might offer to do the workshop at a senior center in your community or at a local church. Aging With Dignity has guidelines on their website for facilitating a Five Wishes workshop.
5. Host a Film Screening and Discussion
Consider hosting a community-wide event featuring an end-of-life documentary film and discussion. You will need a place to show the film such as a local theater, college or high school, or a hospital that has a conference facility. Click on the movie titles listed below for information on acquiring the film for your screening. Find a local speaker or a panel of speakers to lead a group discussion about the end-of-life after the film. Here are some recommended documentary films to consider:
Death: A Love Story
Death Makes Life Possible
A Will for the Woods
Love in Our Own Time
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
These are just a few of many ideas for how you might encourage open conversations about the end-of-life in your community. You can read about additional actions steps here. Whatever step you choose to take, get started now. Once you begin to get people to talk and think about their own end-of-life, you will see a gradual shift in attitude in your community and find more and more opportunities for change unfolding.
You might enjoy being part of a larger virtual community that is working to change end-of-life care in this country and around the world. Consider signing up for free membership in End-of-Life University where you can listen to inspiring interviews with end-of-life change agents from across the globe. No matter how you begin, you can make a big difference in what truly is the most important issue we face.
About the Author:
(Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at www.karenwyattmd.com.)