No Dead End Thoughts For Me

end of road

Most people are ignorant about hospice. I get it.

Most aren’t interested in learning about hospice. I understand.

Most figure hospice is for others, but not them. Makes sense to me.

If a doctor suggested hospice care, how many patients would prefer to discuss other options? Is there a Plan B or C to hospice? Is there a second or fifth opinion with choices other than hospice?  Even if you knew that combined, all of the hospice agencies in the United States cared for about 50% of those who died* in a typical year, hospice stats don’t matter since you’re not going to . . .

Die?

Aren’t you the clever one? Not.

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My parents jokingly—and seriously—planned to “leave feet first” from their home. Over the decades, they’d called the plumber to fix the toilet, mowed the lawns, repainted the house when needed, upgraded to double-paned windows, and hoped at some point in the future they’d go to sleep in their bed and not wake up. Mom was smart, a person of deep faith and knowledgeable about the world. As bright as he was stubborn, Dad had a successful career in sales: life insurance. Professionally (and ironically), he was always encouraging clients to make careful plans for their uncertain futures.

They did not die in their lovely home of nearly 50 years.

Once I visited a 70-something church member after his doctor’s appointment. He’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. With his wife sipping coffee nearby, he told me the oncologist gave him three options: 1) surgery with a few more good years after recovery; 2) chemotherapy’s chance of slowing the cancer for a while; and 3) doing nothing. “We’re good,” he announced, winking at his wife. “I like the doc’s recommendations.” He chose option #3. Didn’t like someone cutting into him. Didn’t like the thought of losing his hair. The physician had said it was his choice, and right then he felt pretty darn good.

He died a few months later.

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Who needs hospice? Who wants to talk about that most awkward and depressing of subjects?

No dead-end thoughts for me! Hey, it is tough for me to imagine my death . . . though many warning signs are on the road never traveled. Now past Social Security’s magic 65, a decade beyond AARP’s first glossy junk mail addressed to me, my hair is thinner and grayer. My knees are creaky. I have several guaranteed places that ache when I “leap” from bed before the crack of dawn. My lower back feels constructed with balsa wood and bent nails. My hearing, seeing, and smelling are fading faster than a winter sunset.

Call me a typical example of entropy: a gradual decline into disorder.

But will I die?

How could I think that? As a minister, I’ve presided over hundreds of funerals. My current hospice job includes contacting families after a loved one’s death, with thousands of conversations about grief. I’ve watched my parents die. As a guy alert to the news, a history buff, and student of the Bible, I know death happens. A dear friend dies. Soldiers and villagers are killed in Afghanistan. Hitler murdered millions. Methuselah, the mythic oldest human of Genesis, would eventually take a last breath. (I bet the staff at Heavenly Medicare cheered when that old geezer met his maker!)

Every day, hour, minute, and second . . . someone dies. I know this professionally and personally. But I won’t die, will I? I wonder if that belief is embedded within human DNA? Or am I the only one foolhardy about mortality?

Of course, yes, certainly, I will die.

I know that. I know that.

But because of my flawed or faithful (or both) understanding of God’s promises, I try to focus on the present and serving others. Tomorrow’s day or death is beyond my control. However, I’m not only a person of faith. I am influenced by medical advances, scientific progress, and a rational view of the world. I don’t think God sends lightning bolts to punish people or unleashes floods to warn nations. The natural world reveals the cycle of life, the passage of seasons, the birth-growth-demise of all sentient beings.

I will die.

I need to make sure I have a DNR and a POLST. I have a health plan. I have above average intelligence. I procrastinate, but also try to prepare.

But can we really prepare for death? Do we avoid our demise in conversations with loved ones, or in the relatively simple act of completing paperwork, because dying and death are for tomorrow? Whether it’s our religious beliefs or in our DNA, are we designed to live and breathe and—even as we age—to pretend we have an abundance of tomorrows?

The professionals in hospice are just like you. They are “built” for life and not death.

Should you, if facing a terminal illness, invite hospice into your life and home?

I hope you do. I hope I do.

Every hospice is different and I can’t promise anything about their procedures, policies, or personalities. But I’m confident about one thing: the doctors and nurses and social workers and chaplains and home health aides and volunteers all understand one thing: we want to live today.

They are just like you, and will help you live . . . today.

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(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

*According to the Center for Disease Control, 2.8 million people died in the U.S. in 2017. Based on CDC data from 2015-16, about 1.4 million Americans were served by the 4,000+ hospice agencies.

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