Having the Conversation

By Charlene Thurston, ANP, Program Director – from Currents Spring 2016

If something happened to you and you were nearing the end of your life, either due to a sudden accident or illness or a long term progressive disease, what would your wishes be? Have you thought about that? Have you told anyone about them? Do you know what your family members would want?

There’s an international movement in the healthcare field to try to help people think about what they’d want and to encourage them to communicate their wishes to their families and their healthcare providers. Prompted by authors like Dr. Atul Gawande (Being Mortal), Dr. Angelo Volandes (The Conversation), and many others, and by efforts like The Conversation Project and the now reimbursable doctors’ visits to discuss advance care planning, people are finally beginning to understand the importance of having these discussions before emergencies arise, so that when something does occur, everyone knows what to do.

Several months ago, I’d seen a TEDMED Talk by Michael Hebb, who came up with the idea of starting a campaign to get people talking about their wishes over dinner parties. Hebb describes how he’d been sitting in a train with two physicians he’d just met, and, in the course of their conversation, they’d described how incredible it was that people approached the most significant event of their lives totally unprepared, and how their families were often left to make life and death decisions for loved ones without any idea of what they might want. He mentions being unpleasantly surprised to hear that the vast majority of American bankruptcies are related to end of life expense, and that, although 75% of people say they want to die at home, only 25% do. In the course of the conversation he asked, “Do you agree that how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation we’re not having?” To which the physicians emphatically agreed. He then asked, “Do you think that, if we started a national campaign called, “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk about Death,” there’d be wide support by physicians, hospitals, and the public?” and both said, “Absolutely! You must do this.”

Since then he and his colleagues developed the idea of starting a grassroots movement where people would gather around a dinner table with family and friends for the purpose of discussing what was important to them and what they’d want or not want if a life and death situation occurred. The dinner party idea came from his thoughts that people sitting together in friendship breaking bread in a relaxed way was how we most comfortably share thoughts and feelings about important matters in life.

Out of this, an organized platform was created so that people could access it for free online to create their own dinner parties. At deathoverdinner.com, you can see the format, and, if interested, register and create your own dinner party. They’ve included excellent resource material for guests to read and great prompt questions to guide your discussions. They’ve even developed invitations you can email your guests. You can watch the 17 minute TEDMED Talk online by clicking HERE or searching “TEDMED Death Over Dinner”.

We strongly encourage you to try it, even with just a small group of family or friends, and promise that the conversation and effort will be rewarding. Afterwards, continue the process by communicating your wishes to your family and healthcare providers, creating your Health Care Proxy, and, if desired, creating a Living Will.

Although Living Wills are not legally binding in Massachusetts, they are used to guide your family and healthcare providers as to your wishes. Healthcare Proxies, however, are legally binding, and allow you to appoint a person to make healthcare decisions on your behalf should you become unable to communicate your wishes.

Please remember that you can call on us at any time to answer questions, obtain forms, or help you develop advance care plans. Visit our site or call (508) 825-8325.

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