Can We Talk? The Conversation Project


Dying may be taking a turn for the better. People, it seems, are beginning to talk about end-of-life issues before the end.

Surveys show that 70% of people want to die at home, yet 70% die in hospitals or nursing homes. Who would want that to happen to them, their spouse, parent or friend? Or anyone?

One person who certainly doesn't is former syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. Over the past two years, Goodman and others - clergy, physicians, journalists, caregivers, and now the Institute for Healthcare Improvement - have worked on creating a national movement to get people to talk about their end-of-life wishes.

It's called The Conversation Project, and this week Goodman launched its website. She hopes to get the subject started around the kitchen table. Before there's a problem.

" Talking about end-of-life has been a cultural taboo," says Goodman. "It's a hard topic because it encompasses loss. But you have to have the conversation early. Decisions will be made for you if you don't make them yourself."

Goodman's mother died four years ago. "I was unprepared," she says. "She did say, 'if I'm ever like that, pull the plug,' but there was no plug. I regret I didn't have her voice in my head when I was making those choices. We never had a thorough conversation; so many people have the same story."

The new website should make it easier to broach this topic with parents, adult children, a relative, friend or a dear neighbor.

The site has a "kit" to help readers start these difficult conversations, links to resources, info on critical documents (power of attorney, healthcare proxy, living will) and a section of shared stories the public can read or add to.

Goodman has these tips to get the ball rolling:

  • Show your parents a story from The Conversation Project website. Ask them what they think.
  • Say, "Mom, Dad, I need your help. I might be in a position where I'll have to make decisions for you some day and need to know what you're thinking."
  • If you want to discuss what you'd like done, or not done, on your behalf and your kids blow you off - "You're nowhere at that stage" or "It's too creepy to discuss," tell them, '"I might need your help and don't want to leave you guessing."
  • Recognize this is not a one-time conversation. Attitudes change.

For terrific articles on end-of-life: Goodman's "Die the Way You Want To" in the Harvard Business Review, "A Life Worth Ending" by Michael Wolfe in New York Magazine and Joe Klein's TIME piece "How to Die: What I Learned from the Last Days of Mom and Dad."

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