Part 19: The Real Last Stop

When Bob and I moved to this senior community, we never made an announcement to our children that this was where we were going to die. Yet I think they, and we knew, that was the plan. Yes, this is the last stop for most of us here. Our children usually know it and are satisfied that we made the decision. Or in some cases they are pleased that they helped us, their parents, make the choice, particularly when they see us leading happy lives.

I have commented before about how hard it is to walk into our mailroom and find a photo of a resident and a rose in a vase announcing his or her death. The reality is that no one lives forever and the rational wish is for our friends and ourselves to die with the least amount of suffering possible. My husband’s death at the age of 90 was like that. Sepsis, a deadly bacterial infection, struck him and he died in three days. If he had survived this virulent infection, life would never have been the same for him. Knowing him as well as I did, his death was a blessing, though it certainly was a shock for our four children, their spouses, the grandkids and me. Someday this group will have to deal with my end too.

This is not a subject my kids are eager to talk about but I have confronted them frequently enough so they know how I would like my death handled. Even before I had written directives and spoke with all of them, they knew I did not want any heroic effort made to save me—just let me go simply and quietly. I think they understand. A number of years ago it was suggested to us to have a folder attached to the refrigerator with all our end-of-life wishes. If 911 is the first responder, I pray they abide by my wishes.

When Bob died we had a lovely service here. Somehow I was able to be the main speaker. I asked a minister, who was a fellow resident and a friend of ours, to offer some psalms and prayers. A recently arrived resident, who happened to be a concert pianist, was our musical accompanist. Kathy, one of our daughters, with the help of her son Eric, put together a musical pictorial video history of Bob which we showed, in the room adjoining the room where the memorial service was held. Our kids and grandkids spoke briefly—there are so many of them—and it was a lovely service. We served refreshments afterwards. It couldn’t have been nicer. I hope my service will work out as well.

Sometimes I have attended services for my resident friends at their churches and temples. Others of my friends have done nothing that included us residents. One man died while living in the Care Center and his wife who lived in the Lodge had a service for him at the Care Center. Our resident priest officiated, and he offered a warm service.

I was recently talking to a couple about my Last Stop articles. Later that evening I got an email from the husband; “Margy, good luck with your new endeavor. There are so many interesting observations to be made about retirement living, but for me the biggest ‘ah ha’ has been the revelation that old people die more frequently than young people. When we moved here it never dawned on me that we would be losing friends and acquaintances more frequently as we all became older. At first, I thought I was mourning the passing of others, but gradually it dawned on me that I was really mourning the approaching prospect of my own death. In another words part of moving to a retirement community is coming to grips with your own mortality.”

Susan Jacoby, in her book Never Say Die The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, states that by 2030 more than 8.5 million Americans will be over 85 and roughly half will suffer from Alzheimer’s or some other irreversible dementia. How scary. Hopefully, we will learn ways to help these people who cannot help themselves.

So, yes, as we continue our lives at this last stop I believe it is necessary to prepare for the end. My view of no extreme interventions to prolong life is not shared by all of my fellow residents. I hear tales of over 80 year olds having very complicated surgery by very competent physicians and surviving the surgery but only to return to the hospital with pneumonia, heart failure or staph infections and then never survive the secondary illness.

My wish is for people to be able to have control over their life and death and when death comes to be able to die with dignity. It is my strong hope for peoples’ lives not to be extended beyond their choice. They should have the decision of their life or death.

Yes, death is hard and inevitable. I urge everyone to read Atul Gawande’s recent book, Being MortalMedicine and What Matters in the End. I like the way he has come to understand the real last stop, and I think you will too.

Written by Margery Fridstein, an author and retired psychotherapist specializing in child development. Margery currently lives in a continuing care retirement community outside of Denver, CO. She is chronicling her senior living experience in the monthly series, “The Last Stop With Margery Fridstein.”