Living Well and Dying With Dignity

This is a hard topic we, in America, hesitate to face. We celebrate living well in our senior years, but when a chronic illness or cancer threatens our living, we have a hard time confronting how we want to die head-on. Take a deep breath, and lets explore this together. You will feel better, really!

The statistics show most of us die in a hospital when weve become too elderly and frail. Rather than letting us slip away with a minimum of suffering, the American healthcare system defaults to doing everything to keep us alive; even if its as a prisoner in the ICU. The truth is, our country spends much more than most other western countries on our last few weeks of life. It doesn’t cure us, won’t save us, and it usually doesn’t make us feel better. Some would say it torments us, and racks up big charges for the doctors and hospitals. One could argue they make big money trying to cheat death, when at this point, even the doctors know that death cannot be cheated.

I know these are strong statements, but I believe in my teacher Dr. Robert Martensen. He is a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and historian at the National Institutes of Health. He has written an important book called A Life Worth Living, where he points out how our current American Way of facing death is a disservice to the elderly, and to their families. Dr. Martensen does not believe in assisted suicide, by any means. He does believe however, that doctors should not use interventions to keep you alive. According to Dr. Martensen, it isn’t right to thrust anyone into a few more days or weeks of life, which is not really a life worth living. Dr. Martensen points out that ventilators are way overused at the end of life. The patient is sedated, tubes are inserted, and the ventilator is simply serving as a bridge therapy for someone recovering from pneumonia, for example. It is only keeping the organs alive, while the patient has no ability to say goodbye to family and friends. The illness is essentially taking over, which is not allowing the patient to die with any sort of dignity.

So, what can we do? What can we do when our health fails for the final time, and our children fly in from multiple places to argue about what Mom would want. Let’s be frank, what theyre really arguing about is what THEY want. Maybe they can’t bring themselves to say goodbye, even after a life lived long and well. One can understand that, but this is why your wishes need to be known and spelled out clearly, IN ADVANCE. According to Dr. Martensen, beyond all the pre-signed legal documents, you need to have designated one person maybe a friend and NOT a family member who can keep a clear head and express your wishes. Again, if there’s ambiguity, the doctors and hospital will default to keeping you alive. This will come at great expense, and possibly with discomfort and lack of dignity for you.

I urge you to speak with your friends and children about what you would want. You clearly know how you want to live. But how do you want to die? I pray we can all live full tilt with no disability until we are 100, and keel over on the tennis court, or die in our sleep with a smile on our face. You know as well as I do though, that it hardly ever works out that way. So confront reality, take control, and make your wishes known. Also, pick up Dr. Martensens book, it may spark a fruitful discussion between you and the people who love you. Those same loved ones who might otherwise fight you, when the time comes to saying goodbye with clarity.