Sandwich Generation: Talking about death not an easy conversation

Wendy Johnstone

Special to The Record

 

Recently, I listened to an interesting interview on death and the fear of dying on CBC’s The Current and the emergence of the Death Cafés, which are popping up in as many as 35 different countries.

Given the work that I do, it should be no surprise that I think about death frequently.  I also like to read the obituaries. It’s the first section I flip to in our local paper.

You can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that you aren’t alone in your thoughts and actions!

Whether it’s a Death Café where strangers go to talk about death and dying and face some of their fears or reading about other people’s deaths and lives, three things strike me the most on the topic of death and dying.

The first being how far removed we are from death, not on a global scale but rather on a personal scale.

Secondly, it appears mortality and how we want to die (if we have any choice in the matter) is as much about living and how we choose to live the remainder of our days.

Finally, our own personal beliefs around dying are shaped by a personal compilation of experiences with our first-hand experiences with death.

Many of us have limited experiences with death. Advances in our medical system are resulting in longer life expectancy and changes to our family structure show a decline in intergenerational living.

In the past, most people died at home surrounded by their family including children and grandchildren.  Now, most of us will die in hospital. In fact, many of our younger generations don’t often have the opportunity to interact with their elders in a way that encourages understanding of how living is still so important, even at 90 years old, and how death is just part of the cycle of life.

In my work with seniors and family caregivers, many of our conversations revolve around living. Sometimes it is discussing the practical parts of living: how to stay independent, how to get around town with no vehicle or how to cook with one hand. However, the bulk of conversations we have are about living a life with the time left, which is very personal and unique to each person. For one client it was figuring out a way to make one last trip to England to see her sister and remaining family. For another client it was finding a way to still do activities that brought meaning in light of major mobility challenges.

Through these conversations about life, invariably, we talk about death, fear of the unknown, the actual process of dying, personal legacy and conversations yet to be had with the people we care about.

The following words from a client sums up the importance of normalizing death and dying. He and his 88-year-old mom often talked about living and dying.  His words of advice: “Encourage people to talk with their elders about, well, lots, but about death, memories, their wishes and fears even if it is uncomfortable or seems like it is still some time in the future.”

Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Solutions. Her column runs regularly in the Comox Valley Record.

 

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