Area hospitals, universities, legal experts, faith-based groups and others are trying to get people to start talking about how they want to live their dying days.
Ellen Goodman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning national columnist, will kick off the conversation when she speaks about Community Engagement and End-of-Life Wishes at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.
Goodman is co-founder of the Conversation Project, a national effort to help people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care.
She was prompted to start the initiative by her own experiences with her dying mother six years ago.
When her mother had dementia and was no longer able to make her own medical decisions, Goodman suddenly was forced to make them.
“I was faced with a whole lot of cascading decisions to make,” she recalled during a recent phone interview. “That totally blindsided me. I wasn’t prepared to face those kinds of decisions.
“In the aftermath of her death, I started talking with other people and realized I wasn’t alone. So many of us face decisions at the end of life without really knowing what the person we loved might have wanted.”
The Conversation Project now has 88 partner organizations across 27 states that are working to encourage people to talk with their loved ones about their wishes and to complete an advance directive. The written statement expresses a person’s desires for medical treatments if unable to communicate.
“The first and most important step is having these conversations before there’s a diagnosis, having them at the kitchen table and not the ICU,” Goodman said.
Goodman’s public speech Tuesday evening will follow a daylong conference at Akron Children’s Hospital aimed at helping clergy, health-care workers, attorneys, funeral directors and financial advisers talk with people about making their end-of-life issues known.
The events are organized by Respecting Options of Care, a local effort to raise awareness about discussing end-of-life wishes. Respecting Options of Care grew out of Palette of Faith, which brings the faith community together to promote conversations about advance directives and end-of-life planning.
“We need to have these conversations with our loved ones during times of calm, not during times of chaos, and have people know what we would and wouldn’t want,” said Dr. Sarah Friebert, medical director for the Haslinger Family Pediatric Palliative Care Center at Akron Children’s Hospital, who has led the Palette of Faith effort.
Summit County Probate Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer said she has seen the consequences if people don’t have advance directives or conversations with their loved ones.
“If you don’t have an advance directive and your family doesn’t know what you want and they disagree, the probate judge will be making the choice,” she said. “While I would be conscientious about it, I would be guessing. ... In the final moments of your life, you really don’t want a stranger making these decisions for you.”
As hard as the conversations might seem, they help make things a little easier for families during difficult times, said Dr. Steven Radwany, medical director of Palliative Care and Hospice Services at Summa Health System and leader for Respecting Options of Care.
“I see many people with advanced or serious illness where the families are struggling,” he said. “It’s so much extra pain if you don’t know what they would have wanted. You’re already dealing with so much pain.”
Tickets for Goodman’s speech are $10 for the general public, $8 for UA faculty and seniors and $6 for students. Call 330-972-7570 for more information or to order tickets.
Information about the Conversation Project, including a tool kit people can use to help launch discussions, is available online at http://theconversationproject.org/.
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/CherylPowellABJ.