Video: Forum examines approaches to end of life, dying

Last modified: Monday, April 07, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — WHMP radio host Bob Flaherty opened a community forum Tuesday at JFK Middle School with a difficult question: “Is there such a thing as a good death?”

For the next two hours, an expert panel and an overflow audience of nearly 200 local residents tackled that question — and numerous others related to death and dying.

Despite the subject matter, the forum, hosted jointly by WHMP, the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Northampton Community TV, was marked by frequent laughter and a sense of openness.

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Panelists and audience members alike shared personal stories, ideas and resources — including websites — about assisted suicide, care for the elderly and ways family members can help loved ones navigate the end of life.

Gazette Managing Editor Laurie Loisel, started things off by telling the story of her 83-year-old father’s suicide in December 2012 — an event her family decided to be public about and about which Loisel has written for the paper.

“My father was 83, fairly healthy and not depressed,” Loisel said. “But he didn’t like what he saw happening to the elderly people around him.”

When her father told Loisel and her siblings he was planning to shoot himself, they gathered in his Maine hometown and tried to dissuade him. “We thought we had convinced him,” she said. “But that night, he did exactly what he said he’d do.”

The loss, Loisel said, made her realize how painful and lonely the experience of aging is for too many people.

“We’re not spending enough time on this part of people’s lives,” she said. “I can’t help but think that what my father did came from a place of fear. It seems something is missing for people when they age.”

Fellow panelist Ann Latham of Westhampton had a different experience of her parents’ suicides last year when they were both nearly 90.

She described the difficulties her father was having caring for her ailing mother and their desire to stay out of a nursing home. When Latham received an email from her parents with the subject line “exit” and a message, ”We are checking out,” she knew what it meant.

Latham’s parents died by inhaling exhaust fumes from a charcoal grill her father had set up in the back seat of their car.

In her view, their decision to end their lives was not a tragic one.

“My parents were fiercely independent,” Latham said. “In my opinion, they ended their dying, not their living.”

Panelist Lee Hawkins, 90, of Northampton, said she also wants to avoid ending up in a nursing home. That’s why she has spent time in recent years talking to her children about taking charge of her own death.

“I’m ready to do what needs to be done if it needs to be done,” Hawkins said. “I decided the most gracious way to go would be to just stop eating or drinking.”

Hawkins doesn’t use the term suicide for how she envisions the end of her life. “Suicide is something you do in desperation,” she said. “I call this a planned death.”

“How do you know you’ll have the guts to go through with it?” Flaherty asked.

“I wonder that, too,” Hawkins replied, with a smile.

“You can’t try this out,” she added, to laughter from the crowd.

Moderators WHMP host Bill Newman and station news director Denise Vozella fielded several questions from audience members about assisted suicide, including how to enlist the aid of doctors and how to help people who may be suffering from dementia or other conditions that make it hard to know their wishes.

Audience member Dr. Jeff Zesiger, medical director of VNA and Hospice at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, said he has helped patients stop eating and drinking, as Hawkins expects to do. But he stressed that approach requires agreement among members of a medical team and clear direction from a patient.

“When people aren’t together, that’s when big trouble happens,” Zesiger said.

Panelist Dr. Joan Berzoff, who is director of the End of Life Certificate Program at Smith College School for Social Work and Baystate Medical Center, picked up on that theme. “I think this all comes down to communication,” she said.

Berzoff recommended that people fill out the “Five Wishes” advance directive document that can be found online so that their loved ones know how they want to approach aging and dying.

“It’s a way of having a conversation with the people you love,” she said.

Panelist Nell Lake, a Northampton resident who has just published book, “The Caregivers,” that chronicles two years she spent in a caregivers support group, said such conversations are even more important in an an era of advanced medical technology.

“People used to die much more quickly,” she said. “Particularly with dementia, there can be this ongoing loss that family members have to respond to.”

On the other hand, Lake stressed that “there is real value in caring for each other. And I think that’s a weakness of our society. We want everything to have a clean ending and it’s not always like that. Courage can also mean facing suffering.”

As the forum ended, audience member Jackie Compton said she appreciated that there had been no “one size fits all” answer to the tough question posed at the start.

“I liked hearing about the courage on all sides of this issue,” said Compton, 65, of Williamsburg. “And the focus on everyone being different. Maybe it’s not really all that grim.”

“A Matter of Life and Death” will be rebroadcast Wednesday at 8 a.m. on WHMP and on NCTV at a date to be announced.