As for us all, there are many ways to look at my life.
What matters most here is my passionate desire to help people have as much tenderness and peace at the end of their lives as they can; for people who love each other to have the time and space to express that love. There is often an amazing opportunity for caring and what I would call soul time which can get lost in an ICU where tubes and monitors and machinery are dominating the final moments. It is so worth having looked ahead and then thinking about ,talking and writing down your wishes.
I knew very little about all that when I began this journey. I hope my experience can help you.
It’s my feisty grandmother who showed me how full of life and joy “being old” could be. Widowed at 39, she had built a life for herself that was full of simple joys. She was in her 60s when I was a little girl. While the rest of the household slept I’d venture to her room for “early morning coffee” which we drank sitting side by side in her bed. (Mine- hot milk with sugar and a touch of Sanka.)
I watched her tend her garden, tar the porch roof, make old fashioned soap with bacon fat and lye (be careful!) , and sing to herself while she cooked. She knew about hard work- had been a school nurse to support herself and my Mom- but she also knew how to thoroughly enjoy life.
And the end-of-life part? Having taken a wonderful class on Death and Dying in my final semester of social work, my mother’s unexpected death from cancer a year later brought the topic home. With her death I received my personal introduction to the generosity and caring of Hospice and the beginning of my exploration of what is possible when someone is dying.
In May of 2010, when my mother’s long time friend Mischi was dying – at the age of 101- I learned a lot more. A Hospice social worker gave me a small booklet called ” GONE FROM MY SIGHT” which helped explain the specifics we might expect – making it much easier to be a loving witness and support.
I learned about laughter as well as tears; about joy and gentleness. Barbara,my childhood friend and I had been sitting by Mischi’s bed all night expecting that any moment might be her last when she seemed to wake up. Looking over at us she said “You two must be dead!” Out of my mouth came “Not yet Mischi!” We all laughed. Mischi was very clear about what care she did and didn’t want and was very much with us until she wasn’t.
Then in August of 2010, the excellent New Yorker article LETTING GO, by Atul Gawande, MD cemented my desire to help people think about their values and wishes for their later years and end of life. Gawande talked about how hard it is for many doctors these days to discuss death realistically with their patients and how crucial honest discussions are.
“With so many advances in medicine that can extend life
we have lost touch with the possibility of a gentle loving death.”
Since that summer, exploring the challenges and possibilities in the years after 60 and at the end of life has been my mission. In January 2011 Hilary Cooke and I started working together on making a viable project of Sustainable Aging. We got our Advanced Care Planning certification through Respecting Choices(R), and studied the World Café system.
Using the Café model for encouraging open and honest exploration we developed a format that participants find particularly supportive. Our goal- to put the topics on the table, provide information, and nurture thought.
In addition to hospice training and ongoing study I had what I call my personal practicum in Death and Dying 401 as three elders in my own family journeyed through their final days.
That’s the longish short story of Sustainable Aging. If you would like to know more about me, read on.
The eldest of three, I was probably wired to be the social worker/teacher type. At the same time I loved color and space. The resulting career path looked like this – Day Care teacher and director who relished making attractive classrooms; Social worker/therapist who had plants and beach stones in her office with the result that clients often said they felt better just walking into the space; and finally creator and owner of Breathing Space: Home and Office Organizing for 15 years. This was a great way to combine people work with what I called space grace.
I loved helping folks think about how their physical surroundings could best reflect and support their interests and dreams. As much as possible I liked to use what they had on hand to make their daily life easier and more comfortable. In some ways my new quest doesn’t feel so different.
What else keeps me occupied? Family and friends, taking photos, gardening, writing, travel and most recently the great joy of being a new grandmother.
CV: Master in Social Work, Smith College School for Social Work; Trained Hospice Volunteer; Certified Advanced Care Planning facilitator and instructor, CTN Toastmaster, Member: Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, VBSR Southern Chapter, Women’s Leadership Circle, Consultant Trainer Network.