March 25 – Mortality Musings

by Kalí Rourke

Mom Rourke was declining at 92 years old. The scalpel sharp intellect and memory we had enjoyed for years was slowly but inevitably eroding, and for a while, Mom railed in anger and frustration at her loss of control.

We learned so much as my husband’s older sister cared for Mom during this hard and challenging time, and it changed our view of aging forever.

Traveling along her journey, we discovered this fascinating book that I highly recommend, no matter what stage of life you are in. “Being Mortal,” by Dr. Atul Gawande, opened my eyes and my mind to the realities of aging and dying in America.

Dr. Gawande tells a series of important stories that illustrate how mortality has changed in our country just as aging has. We rarely die “at home” any longer and more often our last moments of life are in the hands of professional medical personnel and in the grip of the “machinery of last resort;” treatments that can leave us feeling cold, isolated and perhaps a bit like a cyborg.

Consider reading the book and having conversations with your family that may be hard.

Don’t wait until death is in the next room, tying tongues with fear, guilt or sorrow. Open that door now so that it is more possible to open it again when the time arrives to put into action the preferences and directives you only talked about before.

There are critical questions that should be at the forefront of all aging or end of life conversations: “What is important to you? What is most important to try to keep in your life until the end? What is most important to try to include or avoid in your death?” We were grateful we were able to ask these questions of Mom Rourke before it was too late. They were not huge requests and were very achievable!

You may think you know how your loved ones would answer, but often we don’t unless we ask. They may surprise us! Listen to them and ask again as the terrain of aging changes them. Don’t wait until senility sets in and confusion or memory loss make it difficult to express what is most important to them. If you wait too long, you may miss your chance.

Dr. Gawande has changed how I look at aging, terminal illness, hospice care, and most importantly, death. It takes conversations to facilitate a “good death” for your loved ones rather than to say goodbye with regret or guilt over a “bad death.”

America doesn’t like to talk about mortality, and you and I are the only ones who can change that, so consider doing it. Think of it as the first step down a road we build together that leads to people who are as in control of their aging and deaths as possible.

My husband and I are both now thinking about how aging and death can be made better for everyone. Stay tuned.

Kalí Rourke is a wife, mother, writer, singer, and active volunteer. She is a Seedling Mentor and a champion for children’s literacy with BookSpring. Kalí works in philanthropy and as a Mentor for the Young Women’s Alliance.

She blogs at Kalí’s Musings where a longer version of this post appears, and at A Burning Journey – One Woman’s Experience with Burning Mouth Syndrome.

12 responses to “March 25 – Mortality Musings

  1. Kali,
    Thank you so much for writing this. I intend to read the book and definitely think of your words here.

  2. Patricia Roop Hollinger

    I have also read his book and one for all families to read. When, after yet another accident and my father was facing yet another heart surgery I had no problem telling the M.D. that he did not want that as my father had instructed all of the family that he would endure yet another heart surgery. Death was imminent, but it had been discussed before. The same has been true for all of our family. Thanks for sharing

    • Thank you, Patricia. I am sure your Dad was proud that you stood up for his choices and your family was glad they had those difficult discussions.

  3. ANDOLUTELY, Being Mortal is a must read for families who are struggling with aging issues.

  4. sara etgen-baker

    thanks, Kali, for sharing the book title and your thoughts on mortality in this country. You’re right about care for the declining elderly seems to have become impersonal. I wish I’d heard about this book and read it before my parents’ decline. I was ill-equipped to handle the emotional and legal issues that were flung at my brothers and I. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Sara.
      I think many of us are caught by surprise by the multitude and importance of decisions we must make for our loved ones and in Austin, we have been fortunate to find AGE of Central Texas, a nonprofit which has much to offer; caregiver education, support, and even an adult daycare center. The other service that has been very useful is Accountable Aging Care Management, a for-profit service that specializes in the financial and insurance side of aging. It really is a maze these days.

  5. As tough as the subject is, it is comforting for all to discuss death ahead of time. Good post.

  6. Susan Wittig Albert

    Kali’, thank you for this. I was privileged to be present at my mother’s dying, an experience I will never forget. Yes, the questions are hard, but the work of answering them can bring our families closer together.

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