Column by Loretta Redd
In an era where Grandpa’s taking testosterone replacement, along with his reconstructed knees while Grandma’s at a post-menopausal Pilates class, stretching out after her last triathlon, I wasn’t surprised to read an LA Times article, where “the percentage of Americans who say physicians should always do everything possible to save a life has more than doubled since 1990, rising to 31% from 15%.”
The Boomer generation seems to treat death as some avoidable condition; but other than birth, it is the only universally shared experience of every living organism.
As our questionably healthy fear of aging translates into a growing industry of joint replacements, green breakfast drinks, facelifts and sports cars, it may ultimately bankrupt our nation.
It’s not that we don’t want to die in pain…it’s more like we don’t want to die, ever.
Aggressive medical treatment for patients within a month of death accounts for over $140 billion in health care expenditures. Put in a different perspective, one percent of the population is now responsible for 30% of total healthcare costs. And those costs extend life less than 30 days.
The economic paradox is that the distress of our current medical cost has been brought on by the success of our post -war economy. As households became increasingly affluent after WWII, family members relocated to cities and towns farther and farther away from their “family of origin.”
With the siren call of manufacturing, Madison Avenue and middle class jobs, the days where multiple generations lived – and died- under one roof came to an end. Why share a house, when, with the help of the GI Bill, you could afford one of your own?
No longer were babies brought home to a family which included not only siblings and parents, but grandparents and often great-grandparents. No longer did seniors die in the arms of those they had born.
Today, severe illness results in a person being taken to the sanitized environment of a hospital to be cared for by strangers. If the diagnosis is terminal, we’ve created an industry of hospice workers– loving, compassionate, and well-trained–but not family. Because “family” now lives in different cities or countries or are simply too busy living their independent lives.
So we call…or text…or email. No wonder death feels foreign.
Rarely anymore do we hear a physician say, “There’s nothing we can do.” Modern medicine has given us transplanted organs, artificial hearts, bionic limbs and life-extending drugs, to the point that rather than a natural conclusion to life, death almost seems like a failure to try.
But try we will…as if the point of extending a life is to compensate for the time unspent together or to bridge the emotional chasm created throughout life. Economy has replaced emotion.
Rather than, “Do whatever you can to keep them alive,” might I suggest a different trajectory. Take time this holiday season to have a fearfully frank discussion about your death with family members.
Consider a Power of Attorney for Health Care, and Advance Health Care Directives which spell out exactly what – if any- life-extending measures you might want to have taken. Yes, it may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar; unfortunately, that’s the kind of world we’ve created.
But it won’t be a burden, because a burden- whether economic, emotional or physical- is what the survivors face when you have left things unsaid and unplanned. Having buried most of my family, and over 200 clients during the 1980′s AIDS epidemic in Atlanta, I can speak with experience that clear directives are a godsend.
The toll that death takes on all of us will be smaller financially, and even emotionally, if your wishes are clearly spelled out. The real gift is to your survivors who will sleep free from doubt…though not free from grief.
Grief is part of love. Love is part of living. Life is part of death, and death is not an option. Your decision as to what extraordinary steps should be taken to keep you alive, are yours alone to decide. But don’t put this off.