Death, Dying and a Few Questions

Third & final report on a few highlights of the global conference ‘The End of Life Experience: Dying, Death & Culture in the 21st Century’ in Lisbon, March 2018

Question markWhat are the tough end-of-life questions facing the people of Australia? Pretty much the same as those facing the people of the U.S. Or the U.K., or Canada, or Portugal. A few of those discussed at the recent End of Life Experience interdisciplinary conference in Lisbon would include:

How, exactly, do we define death after all? Iona College Professor Vincent Maher, who holds a variety of degrees and whose career has included broad based legal, health care and non-profit sector experiences, presented a paper on the complex case of Jahi McMath. McMath was declared brain dead following surgery to correct a sleep apnea condition at Children’s Hospital, Oakland CA in 2013. She was 13 years old. Her family refused to accept the declaration of death and insisted she be kept on a ventilator. “Court interventions, news and social media exposure ensued,” Maher explains. “Fingers were pointed. What should have been a difficult but straightforward medical decision became a management, ethical and legal fiasco.” Eventually the family succeeded in having Jahi flown to New Jersey, one of two states (New York being the other) which follow a family’s definition of death. This policy was designed to accommodate Orthodox Jews, some of whom believe that the presence of breath signifies life. Jahi remains on a ventilator and feeding tube, with 24-hour care covered by Medicaid; her family still hopes to bring her back to California – where the coroner issued her death certificate in 2014.Grim reaper

Set aside the ethical, racial (McMath is African American,) financial and other questions, what is death? When the heart stops? When breathing stops? Or when the brain is dead? Medical technology can now keep a body functioning after brain death – organ donation is benefiting from this – but at some point, death takes over.

Can we keep control of our lives as they are ending? Increasingly, no, says Dr. Peter Saul, Senior Specialist, Intensive Care Unit, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW, Australia. “Dying in the 21st century in a wealthy country,” Saul says, “is now dominated by elderly people with significant disability, sometimes cognitively impaired, faced with making complex end of life care choices.” And those choices commonly follow “standard (medical) protocols and (are) in line with family wishes regardless of preferences recorded in advance care directives.” Australians, like the majority of people everywhere, would choose to die at home, Saul says; but “the entire structure and funding model of Western medicine greatly favors tertiary and hospital care over that provided in the community.”

Saul suggests that “the medical system at all levels would need to become proactive in creating genuine opportunities for choices to be available. This means asking more, offering more education, taking choice seriously and pushing back against a legal system that favors defensive medicine and over-treatment even in the same breath as pushing ‘patient autonomy.’”

So, is there anything hopeful on the horizon for the end-of-life experience? Definitely. Ottowa, Canada psychologist Morry Appelle and his wife, therapist Christine Appelle presented a paper on a discussion group they started five years ago “in an attempt to address more consciously and formally our own concerns of death.” They were surprised to find eager participants who became faithful, regular attendees, and who agreed to allow videos of some of their meetings to be shared. It is a remarkably effective way to confront mortality.

Planet earthThis writer left Lisbon urging the Appelles to publish a book about their novel idea, but you don’t really have to wait for the book. A group of friends or strangers willing to meet together for an extended period of time and simply talk through everyone’s fears and concerns offers an invaluable way to face, and embrace, life’s end. Such an experience could well lead to the patient autonomy and personal choice currently under threat in wealthier nations around the globe. It would undoubtedly help to have someone like Morry &/or Christine Appelle as facilitator. “Mostly,” they said about their experimental group, “we wished to look more intimately at the mystery of life and death, thereby dispelling some of its associated anxiety and fear. To the extent we could live out this life as fully and consciously as possible, we proposed that lifting the veil on death was a reasonable place to begin.”

The Lisbon conference did a lot of veil-lifting. Also lifted up? Questions worth pondering, wherever on this fragile planet we happen to be sharing our fleeting mortality.

A Global Look at Death & Dying

Three things you and I have in common with the rest of the world: We are born, we live, we die.

Lisbon - Conference brochure

Conference brochure

Dying being so universal, it seems appropriate to talk about it. But the truth is we seldom do that, unless it’s happening to somebody else. An interesting group of people who do talk about it got together recently for a global conference in Lisbon I was lucky enough to attend, The End of Life Experience: Dying, Death and Culture in the 21st Century. It was put on by Progressive ConnexionsInterdisciplinary Life, a not-for-profit network registered in the U.K. (Freeland, Oxfordshire) and a successor to the organization that ran earlier conferences I attended in Prague and Budapest. Full disclosure: Part of my motivation for the hard work of creating papers for these events is the mesmerizing pull of Prague, Budapest and Lisbon. That mea culpa is now out of the way.

As end-of life conferences go, this was the best. Not because any great, existential questions were answered, but simply because it proved so eloquently that we’re all in this life (and death) together. We struggle with the same questions about pain, loss and grief; we face the same dilemmas about aging, illness and dying itself. Whatever corner of the planet, whoever we are.

Lisbon - Castelo view

Lisbon at dusk

In my group in Lisbon were a couple of anthropologists, professors of everything from Philosophy to Nursing to English Literature, an actress/storyteller, some doctors & nurses & clinical psychologists, an interfaith chaplain, a textile artist – just lovely people from corners of the planet like Portugal, the U.S., Canada, Malaysia, U.K., Australia. Ordinary people sharing extraordinary insights shared below (and in subsequent posts on this page.) No attention was paid to titles and degrees – a very good thing for me, since an MFA in short fiction wouldn’t exactly be at the top of the list; attention was paid only to the voices, insights and generously shared thoughts. Here’s the first report:

Pain. Nobody gets out of life without pain, and since it’s often a big factor in end-of-life experiences, pain got its share of attention in Lisbon. Conference chair Nate Hinerman (a professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco) submitted a paper titled “The Death of Hospice” which was in the first conference segment. Because he was committed to keeping to a strict time schedule – and this was a talkative group not easy to settle down – Hinerman skipped the actual presentation of his own paper. But it was appropriate to the broader issues addressed in the first segment, of which I was a part. There are some big questions here.  Pain

“I argue that as boundaries blur between palliative care, hospice care, and patient-centered curative care,” Hinerman writes, “ultimately, palliative care ought to the goal.” Palliative care means, essentially, do everything to alleviate pain – for patient and family alike. Focus on quality of life rather than life-extending treatments and technologies. “Patients do not benefit,” Hinerman says, “from boundaries like those, say between disease-centered care and palliative care. Or say between palliative care and complex chronic conditions management. Or again, especially between palliative care and hospice.”

In other words, are these fine points (which are eternally argued by professional groups – as well as insurance companies) focused on you and me – patient and patient-advocate – or somewhere else? Boundaries get blurred. “We still need policy changes to support this (palliative care) work, and payment structures to ensure coverage of palliative care.” Hinerman says.

Which brings us to another common theme: money. In both the formal sessions and in casual conversations throughout the conference, the issue of the almighty dollar was often raised. The problem of how to pay for healthcare needs is not confined to the U.S. But more common, and more complicated, is the also-universal question of distribution of finances. Such as: if we spent less on the last few days of life – emergency room and intensive care unit costs are significant especially in the U.S. – could we put those dollars to better use somewhere else?

Lisbon presentation

Doing my presentation

My own paper looked at two different models of Continuing Care Retirement Communities in the U.S. One is a church-related not-for-profit community with independent living, assisted living, nursing and dementia units. Newcomers must be mobile and reasonably healthy, and pay a substantial entry fee, but – as my brother-in-law remarked when he and my sister moved into a similar facility in another state, “the advantage is, they can’t throw us out.” The other is a condominium building in which residents own their apartments but buy into the management company, a national for-profit corporation which furnishes meals, assisted living in owners’ apartments, activities, etc. Both have substantial monthly fees; the condominium community’s are higher, but when a resident dies at least the heirs profit from the unit’s sale. CCRCs now number almost 2,000 across the country – and, while fairly well regulated, none of them are cheap. It is a very big business. One of my questions is: should these populations of aging and dying Americans, among the most vulnerable of groups, be caught up in a multi-billion-dollar enterprise? If something comes up that requires a choice between the aging residents and the bottom line, which direction do giant corporations usually go?

After my presentation, which was mostly a group discussion about such choices, a conference speaker from Malaysia approached me to apologize for not having participated. “In my home,” she explained, “if I were to allow my parent to live in one of those places, no matter how nice it might be, it would bring great shame on my family. Our culture mandates that the family take care of its aging members.” Ah, so. In our U.S. culture, that was also true as recently as two or three generations ago; but we have become so scattered, and so technologically and institutionally advanced, that living with family through dying is a rarity today.

All of the above offers more questions than answers. But they are universal questions and worth pondering: When you’re seriously ill and in pain, what kind of care would you choose? Where would you prefer to die, ICU or at home? Where will you spend the retirement years leading until you die? Pondering – and creating written plans – could avoid a lot of grief for you and loved ones alike.

Lisbon conference group

The 2018 EOL Experience Conference Group

 

Next week: The Lisbon Conference: Appearances from beyond the grave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

in addition to supplying trained providers, and maintaining ongoing public engagement.We need to increase the consumer demand, and at the same time, continue to pursue palliative care with hospital administrators, so that those services can be bolstered.