Ambitious PBS Series Looks at Improving the Way We Die

By Gross, Judy | National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

Ambitious PBS Series Looks at Improving the Way We Die


Gross, Judy, National Catholic Reporter


Woody Allen may have said it best. "I'm not afraid of dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." That might be a widespread feeling, but most people remain fascinated by death.

It may be an element of life as old as the race, but our imaginations are never sated. Despite an immense body of literature on the subject, our interest remains great enough to support a constant stream of new books.

An ambitious new public television series by Bill Moyers is scheduled to air Sept. 10-13, 9-10:30 EDT each night. Titled "On Our Own Terms," the series looks at all aspects of death. Context for the series: Organizations to deal with death and coalitions to discuss it are springing up all over the land.

Death isn't something that just happens anymore. People now have choices, some of them stretching the limits of ethical consideration. Wound through all the questions is the thick thread of religious tradition and practice, often comforting not only in the traditional sense but also in helping to make sense of new possibilities surrounding death.

The public discussion hasn't yet reached what author Malcolm Gladwell calls "the tipping point," where ideas and messages spread like viruses, but even prime-time television is looking at dying in a new way. Death, or euphemistically "end of life," has entered the spotlight as baby boomers enter senior citizen status.

With aging boomers expecting to live as much as 30 years longer than their grandparents, end of life angst has attained dinner table respectability. The other side of the issue is the role boomers are playing as caregivers to aging parents, who are often reluctant to talk about death.

Fr. Charles Meyer, an Episcopalian priest who is chaplain at St. David's Medical Center in Austin, Texas, said the World War II generation had more social structures and "didn't need to talk about a lot of stuff." He said that one way to start the discussion with older people is by talking about one's own wishes at the end of life and then saying, "What about you?"

Stepping out ahead of the crowd was Jim Towey, a boomer who was legal counsel for Mother Teresa. After working with her in caring for the dying in India, Towey put together Aging with Dignity, a nonprofit organization whose emphasis is on "improving care for those at end of life."

Towey's concern is for the uncertain future. "The minute the economy starts to sputter who's going to get squeezed? The poor and the elderly. They always do." He wanted to start the discussion well in advance.

Part of Towey's motivation is his concern with society's drift toward euthanasia. "I saw how much easier it would be to kill them than to care for them," he said, referring to his experience in India. In his opinion, Third World countries care for their dying more humanely than developed ones.

"Here, people in pain are isolated and treated like objects," Towey said.

A February Aging Today article states that two-thirds of the 2,805 Connecticut physicians surveyed confirmed that if physician assisted suicide were legalized, they would aid in a patient's death. Not unexpectedly, the study also showed that a physician's religion affects views on assisted suicide. Followers of Judaism, Catholicism, Lutheranism and Islam strongly condemn it.

One initiative of Aging with Dignity is Five Wishes, a menu of end of life choices that goes into detail about what an individual wants to happen at the moment of death and after. Moving a step beyond living wills, health care surrogate and do-not-resuscitate documents -- all efforts in helping medicine to know when to stop -- Five Wishes asks the person to determine things like "If anyone asks how I want to be remembered, please say the following about me."

Experts in end of life care and the American Bar Association Commission of Legal Problems of the Elderly helped to write Five Wishes, which is accepted in 33 states. …

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