Death, Dying & the Grey Zone

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Death-and-dying usually goes with I-don’t-want-to-talk about-it.

Katy Butler wants us to talk about it. She worries, though, about the culture of death-denial, and about the lack of language when we do try to talk. How, for instance, do you say “I don’t want any more surgeries,” without its sounding like “I’m giving up”? Or how do you say “She doesn’t want that treatment” without its seeming you don’t want to keep Mom around? Especially when you know what Mom wants, but the doctors don’t?

Butler, author of the acclaimed 2013 memoir of her parents’ dying years Knocking on Heaven’s Door, spoke at a recent meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Network for End-of-Life Care. Network members – physicians, teachers, counselors and individuals associated with a wide variety of end-of-life organizations – were clearly in tune with the message: death comes, but few acknowledge or prepare for it. It’s that vast majority, those who don’t want to talk about it, who concern Butler and her audience, including this writer.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door details, in graceful prose, how Butler’s highly educated, physically active, devoted parents managed to get caught up in the brutal reality of dying in the U.S. Her father, a decorated veteran of World War II, suffered years of gradual descent, including having a pacemaker put in when that was mainly a cruel prolongation of suffering; her mother suffered in parallel but very different ways as his caregiver. It is all, Butler fervently believes, unnecessary suffering. She quotes her father as he declined:

“I don’t know who I am any more.” Another year or so later: “I’m not going to get better.” And still later, “I’m living too long.”

Butler speaks of this in terms of “the Grey Zone.” Whereas most of us want simple, black-and-white answers – “This pill will fix everything;” “you can expect to live another four to six months” – in truth, the time before dying is the Grey Zone. And whereas the Grey Zone used to be short and swift, today – thanks to modern medicine and technology – it is forever expanding.

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Everyone will enter the Grey Zone sooner or later. You, reader of these words, and I, writer. You may ski into a tree, or get hit by a truck tomorrow, causing your Grey Zone to be little more than a blur; I could have a major stroke or aneurism and be at the crematorium tomorrow. But in all probability, our Grey Zones will come in bits and pieces, and will extend for many months or years. They are likely to include a few hospital stays for broken bones or debilitating illnesses, chemotherapy for cancer, possible time on a ventilator, multiple medications with occasional unpleasant side effects, outpatient and inpatient experiences with doctors we have never seen before and encounters with medical technology yet to come.

Butler advocates shifting our Grey Zones away from the relentless need to prolong life at all costs to the consideration of what really makes life worth living. We would do well, she says, to be aware of when “that space between active living and dying” should shift from Cure to Care: to easing our way from good life into good death.

Butler’s understanding of these issues come from witnessing her father’s long, anguished journey through a Grey Zone of many years and her mother’s steadfast refusal to allow a similar prolonged struggle to mark the end of her own life.

Quite apart from the expanding battles to legalize medically hastened dying, the need to acknowledge the Grey Zone is equally urgent. Most of us would opt to shorten that space between active living and dying, or at the very least to move gracefully from good life into good death.

It can happen, but not without paying attention. Reading Butler’s book, with an eye to how you would like to knock on heaven’s door yourself, is a good way to start.

Because looking realistically ahead makes infinitely more sense than zoning out.

Life: does longevity trump quality?

“We have to get out of the way,” she said; “make room for other, new people on the planet.” Accomplished author/editor Cyra McFadden, at a recent dinner party, was talking about a group of women scientist friends’ excitement over discoveries they have made which show promise of extending life a fraction longer. Cyra was in fierce, though silent, disagreement.

It may be time for those of us who disagree with the rampant prolong-life-at-all-costs theories  to stop being silent.

Americans are, in fact (as reported in Epoch Times below, and elsewhere) living longer all the time. Sometimes that’s just fine, especially if we’re in reasonable health. But what if we’re not? What if we’d just as soon be getting on with whatever follows this temporary time on earth? Millions and millions of people are living for hours, days or extended months and years in circumstances they would not choose simply because we have created a culture that says we must be kept alive no matter what.

Average life expectancy continues to increase, and today’s older Americans enjoy better health and financial security than any previous generation. Key trends are reported in “Older Americans 2008: Key Indicators of Well-Being,” a unique, comprehensive look at aging in the United States from the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics.

“This report comes at a critical time,” according to Edward Sondik, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Health Statistics. “As the baby boomers age and America’s older population grows larger and more diverse, community leaders, policymakers, and researchers have an even greater need for reliable data to understand where older Americans stand today and what they may face tomorrow.”

Where do we stand right now? Well, the same source that says we’re living longer and enjoying better health and financial security (hmmmm on the financial security business) reveals that Americans are “engaging in regular leisure time physical activity” on these levels: ages 45-64: 30%; ages 75-84: 20%; geezers 85 and over: 10%. Hello? Better health and financial security, just no leisure time physical activity? Could it bear some relationship to obesity factors in the same data: 30+% for men, 40+% for women?

Does living well need to be assessed in the compulsion to live long? Why not? Everyone should have the right to live at whatever weight and whatever level of inaction he or she chooses. But the system is weighted toward keeping us alive under all conditions, and bucking the system is not easy. A poignant, wrenching tale of her father’s slow decline and death — and her mother’s refusal to go down that same path — was recently told by California writer/teacher Katy Butler in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Almost without their consent, Butler’s gifted, educated parents had their late years altered to match the system’s preferences:

They signed living wills and durable power-of-attorney documents for health care. My mother, who watched friends die slowly of cancer, had an underlined copy of the Hemlock Society’s “Final Exit” in her bookcase. Even so, I watched them lose control of their lives to a set of perverse financial incentives — for cardiologists, hospitals and especially the manufacturers of advanced medical devices — skewed to promote maximum treatment. At a point hard to precisely define, they stopped being beneficiaries of the war on sudden death and became its victims.

Given the limitless sources of victimization floating around, we should not have to add just-try-to-keep-them-alive-forever health care to the list.

My husband and I, having long ago signed advance directives with additional specific issues sheets (“If this happens, do that; if that happens, don’t do this,” etc) recently got them out and talked things over again, a very good thing to do for EVERYbody over 18. We will add dementia provisions to the existing documents while we can remember to do that (the closest you can come to avoid being warehoused in a memory-loss facility for umpteen years.) We are clear, and our friends and family understand, about having no interest in hanging onto life in a greatly diminished state if such an opportunity presents itself; for increasing thousands, it presents itself every day.

All this being said, there’s still a reasonable chance that I’ll be out of town one day when I’m in my 80s (which aren’t that far off), get wiped out by a speeding cyclist and picked up in a seriously mangled state by the paramedics, taken to a hospital that’s not Kaiser (which has all my directives on file,) miraculously brought into some heavily-sedated state of being because the hospital doesn’t consult Kaiser or the living will registry (which also has my directives) and kept alive by assorted mechanisms. By the time my husband or children get there to insist everything be unplugged — which of course will involve long hours and possibly court action — hundreds of thousands of dollars will have been needlessly spent.

I consider myself a highly valuable member of society, and my life a gift from God. But would those dollars not be better spent on a few kids needing specialized care?

Epoch Times – Americans Are Living Longer, According to Federal Report.