During the dog days of summer, Betsy Davis, who had ALS (the progressive motor neuron disease also known Lou Gehrig’s disease, which theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has as well) hosted an extraordinary gathering: a two-day party for friends and relatives — at the close of which she took a lethal dose of drugs to end her life. Davis is one of the first Californians to take advantage of the state’s new End of Life Option Act for the terminally ill.
Her friends called the party “the final performance” for the painter and performance artist, who could no longer stand, brush her teeth or scratch an itch. “What Betsy did gave her the most beautiful death that any person could ever wish for,” said cinematographer Niels Alpert. “By taking charge, she turned her departure into a work of art.”
Dying the way she wanted
Although Davis wasn’t a senior, her decision to take control of her dying process is becoming more common among elders who know the end is near.
While Betsy Davis hosted her farewell party in San Diego, in Chicago, 92-year-old Margaret Coleman was also preparing to die: at home, attended by her fourteen children. For the previous two years, the kids had rotated caregiving shifts as their mother grew frail. With fourteen people dividing the work, each needed to cover only a single weekly 12-hour shift, so that Coleman was never alone.
In her final weeks, the devoted children helped their mom fulfill the final item on her bucket list: a visit to the family cottage on Lake Michigan, where she’d been summering since the 1930s. They packed up her wheelchair and portable oxygen. Parked her bed next to the window, with a view of the lake. And yes, threw a party.
Once back home, Coleman smiled her gratitude, and peacefully expired. The family talked about how happy it made them that she could die at home, as she’d wanted.
Preparing for the death they choose
This is what many seniors want — and what their families and friends may be quite reluctant to face: enabling the elders they love to die the way they prefer, which is far from the dominant paradigm of being hospitalized, surrounded by strangers and impersonal machines.
The less we fear aging and death, the more helpful we can be to those approaching this passage. Reverse mortgage professionals can serve as a bridge, since you work with both a senior population and their family members. As one LO wisely states, “As we age, we become our parents and finally our grandparents, and it provides us with the unique opportunity to help guide and instill the right values in our younger family members without being judgmental.”
Holding space for the dying
The best way to prepare those who are nearing death is to hold space for their process, which will also go a long way towards mitigating the fear of dying, for them and for us.
What does “holding space” mean? Basically, to walk with someone (figuratively, if not literally) on their journey, without judging how it could or should look. Admittedly, this is not an easy task. It entails opening the heart wide in vulnerability.
Ideally, holding space happens in a circle of support and not in a vacuum, so that while you hold space for a client or a loved one who is dying, someone else (perhaps a chaplain, hospice nurse, other caregiver, or friend) is holding space for you.
By creating a container in which it is safe enough for someone to express what they want and share challenging emotions, we grant the seniors in our lives the power to choose the kind of exit that surrounds them with love, peace, and even a measure of happiness.