Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Elder Care: Conversations about Dying

Some months ago I read an article in the NY Times that moved me so much, I cut it out, stashed it in my "to write about" file and never dared look at it again. The author, a psychotherapist, dared to bare her heart and soul in the article. More than anyone else I've read or talked to, she captured the poignancy, sadness and privilege of participating in the waning months of an elderly person's life.

In Mimi's Place, I've written much about caregiving and caregiver issues, about the strains and uncertainties related to helping one's aged parents as they become older and frailer. But I've not yet tackled the subject of talking with your parent(s) about dying and death. As I go through this experience myself, I find I have little patience for complainers and whiners in this situation. Rather, I've become a sponge for the wisdom of those who are willing to take the time to analyze their relationships in thoughtful ways. Like them, I try to distill my experience into something both practical and meaningful for others. It thrills me to see more caregivers recognizing that, regardless of the trauma and drama of their situation, they have skills they never realized they possessed, and are gaining experience which will have real-world applications.

I want here to quote a few passages from the article, which was written by Dr. Ruth H. Livingston of the William Alanson White Institute in New York. Dr. Livingston has addressed the subject with great gentleness and insight. I couldn't ask for a better introduction for my readers, nor a more inspiring article on this very difficult subject. Reviewing her visits with a dying patient she writes, "Awkwardly, haltingly, I speak of mundane events of my day.... I feel strange, out of role and incredibly selfish....Yet as I speak, she smiles. The furrows of pain creasing her forehead relax....And so I go on....The work is draining and lonely. I often feel inadequate, out of my element, helpless. And I wonder about my motives....But I know that I'm deeply grateful to my patient...This work is paradoxically enlivening: it has given my professional life--and my personal life--new richness and meaning."

I hope you will all click through to read the article, which is not terribly long, in its entirety. And I hope you will all find it as bittersweet yet uplifting as I did.

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