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Lehigh Valley

Ellen Goodman urges families, loved ones to have end-of-life talks

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Ellen Goodman made a career writing about social change. Now she’s involved in seeking social change to help people fulfill their wishes for end-of-life care.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist spoke on “The Most Important Conversation America Isn't Having” Wednesday night at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem. The program was part of the seventh Dr. and Mrs. Max Littner Memorial Lecture Series for Bereavement.

In a culture that places a high value on youth and vitality, death and dying are often topics most Americans avoid. Yet a routine dinner table conversation can be the ultimate show of respect when listening to a loved one’s wishes about how he or she would like his or her life to end, Goodman said.

“It feels superstitious letting death in the room,” said Goodman, a founder and director of The Conversation Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care. “We are all mortal and immeasurably slow in acknowledging how many people we love are not dying in ways they choose.”

Ninety percent of Americans think it’s important to have conversations about dying, but only 30 percent are actually having them, she said.

Goodman said she started The Conversation Project after the death of her mother, who suffered from dementia.

She said her role changed at 60 when she went from working mother to working daughter as her mother’s health declined and her mother could no longer decide what she wanted for her end-of--life care.

Goodman said she was always able to talk about anything with her mother, but when the conversation turned to final wishes it ended abruptly with “just pull the plug.”

“When the time came, there was no plug,” she said. “There almost never is.”

Failure to have the conversation is compounded by a health care system that’s sluggish to change, doctors who are either untrained or uncomfortable about end of life choices, and elderly parents reluctant to worry their adult children and children reluctant to bring up the subject, Goodman noted.

“We attempt to protect each other about our mortality and leave our survivors a wreck,” she said.

Goodman said a starting point is to make the conversation a normal part of life and become part of transitional moments such as turning 18 and heading off to college, marriage, a first child and retirement.

The Conversation Project recommends that people authorize a medical decision-maker; complete an Advanced Health Care Directive; and discuss end-of-life wishes with their health care provider.

Goodman said the Baby Boomer generation, whose ranks are entering retirement by the thousands every day, has always been “the change agent of culture.” Now, as the longevity generation, Baby Boomers have an opportunity to help society reinterpret how it approaches mortality, she said.

“Dying is a human experience not a medial experience,” Goodman said. “We can transform the way we die.”

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