Upcoming forum deals with planning for and discussing death

Last modified: Monday, April 07, 2014

NORTHAMPTON – When city resident Nell Lake was 18, her grandmother, then in her late 70s, was told she might have cancer.

“She was a strong, independent person who had long expressed an aversion to being in a nursing home,” said Lake, now in her 40s.

Rather than end up that way, Lake said her grandmother went into her garage and took her own life by turning on the car engine and breathing in the exhaust fumes.

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The loss, Lake said, “colored my lens” in writing her just published book, “The Caregivers,” which chronicles two years of a caregivers support group where members talked about the challenges of caring for sick and elderly loved ones. The prologue is about her grandmother.

Lake will share her story at a community forum Feb. 25 at JFK Middle School along with other panelists who have faced difficult end-of-life issues.

Among the topics to be explored at the event, “A Matter of Life and Death,” are whether the elderly are getting the care they need; whether assisted suicide is a healthy option; and what role family and community members play in helping loved ones navigate society’s ideal of a “good death.” The forum, hosted jointly by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, WHMP Radio and Northampton Community TV, runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Community Room at JFK on Bridge Road. Moderators are WHMP hosts Bob Flaherty, Bill Newman and station News Director Denise Vozella.

In addition to Lake, other panelists include: Lee Hawkins, a 90-year-old Northampton resident who has spoken publicly about her belief in what she terms a “planned death;” Ann Latham, a Westhampton resident whose 90-year-old parents killed themselves last year; Laurie Loisel, the Gazette’s managing editor, who has written about her family’s decision to be public about her 83-year-old father’s suicide in December 2012; and Dr. Joan Berzoff, director of the End of Life Certificate Program at the Smith College School for Social Work and Baystate Medical Center.

Forum-goers will have a chance to ask questions of panelists at the event and also via text message.

Loisel said the forum was inspired in part by the response she received after publishing articles in the Gazette last year about her father’s suicide and time spent with Hawkins and her family when preparing a story about Hawkins.

“The letters that came in after those stories made me think more attention needs to be paid to these issues,” Loisel said. “I didn’t realize how common it is for people to feel such a lack of control over the later stages of life.”

In contrast to the focus given to people at the point of dying, Loisel said the time leading up to that moment gets far less notice — which can leave people feeling alone and afraid.

“There are lots of retirement communities but not everyone likes that,” she noted. “There need to be options so that people can feel they have more agency over the end of life.”

Fellow panelist Berzoff said attitudes towards end-of-life care have changed for the better in recent decades, with more people writing advanced directives and greater public awareness of services such as hospice.

“But we still have a long way to go, particularly around the issue of assisted dying,” said Berzoff, who is a professor of social work at Smith.

In her view, choosing how to die is “a civil rights issue” that touches on closely-held cultural and political beliefs.

“It’s the next frontier,” Berzoff said.

Forum moderator Newman, an attorney and director of the ACLU’s western Massachusetts office, pointed out that a state ballot question to legalize physician assisted suicide for the terminally ill was defeated two years ago by a narrow margin of 51 to 49 percent.

He hopes next week’s forum will help break the silence that too often surrounds issues of death and dying.

“These are extremely difficult issues that many of us have faced personally, but that we’ve been forbidden to talk about,” Newman said. “I think this is something people want to talk about and want to see how others have handled. We want to see we are not alone.”

Although it’s been nearly 30 years since her grandmother’s suicide, Lake said the experience still raises questions in her mind.

“What makes life worth living?” she said. “And how can we have a more compassionate and wise approach to the end of life? We need to be more open about this whole topic.”

“A Matter of Life and Death” will be aired live on WHMP and NCTV. It also will be rebroadcast Feb. 26 at 8 a.m. on WHMP and on NCTV at a date to be announced.


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