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Senior Citizen's Guide to Chicago

The Gift of a Lifetime

What do you want at the end of your life? If asked just like that, for most people the question isn’t all that scary. We all have wishes and dreams and most of us are happy to share them. But for those facing or dealing with the end of life, that same question takes on a whole new level of meaning.

In hospice, we see the need to ask this question firsthand. For many people, finding the answer can make a huge difference in how they are able to live their life.

One December a woman named Janice came to sit in on one of our hospice educational programs. Janice’s husband Dale—not their real names—had been seriously ill for some time and she had been his sole caregiver through the long illness. They both knew how sick he was, but talking about inevitability was something neither of them wanted to bring up.

Throughout all of our lives, no one gets by without having a few difficult conversations, so I asked Janice about difficult conversations that she and her husband had over the years. She told me about a disappointing investment, about when their son had become gravely ill and had to be hospitalized, about her husband and his sometimes delays in returning from war, about the loss of a job and the hardships their family went through to survive.

She told me that, as much as she wished, this conversation was different. She could not bring herself to ask her husband to consider his wishes. She was afraid that if she brought it up, he’d lose his energy for treatment and think she’d given up on him, and they would lose what little control they had left over their lives.

From my time in hospice, I have heard many concerns loved ones have over the idea of giving up or losing control. I told Janice that these conversations, although they may be difficult to start, bring comfort and understanding when facing the end of a life. For someone who is sick and for their loved ones, the simple act of talking about their wishes, of talking about how they want to make the most of the time they have left, and the feeling of control from putting together an advanced directive can be the gift of a lifetime.

After a little bit of prodding, Janice acknowledged that she and Dale wouldn’t have made it through their other tough times together if they hadn’t talked things through. I gave her a copy of our advanced directive and she went home. I was updated a week later by a small card from Janice decorated for the season. She had had the conversation with Dale. Among the things he had requested, a little bit of Led Zeppelin, a little more Jim Beam, and a lot more time with her.

When asked, almost everyone would like to decide how they’re treated and cared for. Yet, most of us avoid talking about these issues. At our hospice, we see friends and families struggle every day when they are not offered guidance on how a loved one wants to be treated, or not, at the end of his or her life. And we know that this turmoil at an already trying time can be avoided.

In Illinois, and in most other states, these kinds of talks can also include what’s known as an Advance Directive. Advance Directives give you the ability to create a legal document that lists the types of healthcare you do and do not want, and to name an “agent” to speak for you if you cannot speak for yourself.

So take some time to talk, no matter what your age, these simple conversations make it easier for any family to know what their loved one would want. These conversations can seem difficult because of the strong emotion involved, but even sitting down for a quick talk, or filling out a short Advance Directive can truly be a gift of a lifetime.

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