Rites of Passage
By Mary Pat MacKenzie
Every spring, in May and June, there seem to be weekly events marking “rites of passage”. There are graduations from preschool and college, weddings, anniversaries and many reminders of how time marches on, in different ways, for each of us. My daughter teaches middle school and she tells me that as the end of the school year approaches the kids get excited and anxious about the featured video they must watch which explains how their bodies are changing. As the years pass and I am faced with the changes in my aging body I think we seniors should have our own changing body video! Short of that happening it is a good time to reassess our goals and plans for our futures – for the next rite of passage we face – old age and the end of life.
Families tend to gather more frequently over the summer months, especially here on Cape Cod where our far flung kids and grandkids want to visit and get in some beach time. This is a good opportunity to talk with them about how you want to live out the rest of your life and how you would like to die – and it does not have to be nearly as uncomfortable as the “sex talk” conversation was when they were kids!
Neighborhood Falmouth has been working closely with the Falmouth Senior Center to help inform people about end of life planning. The lecture series titled “Are You Ready?” which ends on June 25 has been completely filled and will almost certainly be repeated in the coming months. The programs cover everything from legal planning to health and spiritual goals. The response to the series has been overwhelmingly positive and one comes away from each program realizing how important it is to be open and communicative and to do your homework. Just as we learned in our earlier life stages how to manage money, how to stay healthy, how to bring up a family or keep a job, now is the time to stretch that learning curve to encompass a new stage of life.
After you think about what you want at the end of life it’s time to share that information with your family and close friends. It may seem to be a daunting task but actually it can be quite amusing and a good time to walk down memory lane. We have all experienced watching older family members become ill and eventually die – or alternatively die suddenly and unexpectedly at a much younger age. How many of us were prepared to deal with the aftermath of this dramatic life change? One of my cousins and I frequently talk about what it was like when an aunt died from cancer in her 50’s. She had no husband or children but fortunately for us she had done her homework, had a will and made her wishes very clear to us. We sat with her in Hospice Care at the end of her life and found it to be a comforting time with some very funny moments. After she died we spent a hilarious day dressing up in her old clothes and furs and visiting her friends – she would have loved it!
Some of the subjects to discuss with family are quite simple and pragmatic – where is your will, your health care proxy and how do you want to be buried? Our kids are fully aware that I want my ashes thrown in the Bras d’or Lakes in Cape Breton and my husband would like to have his ashes interred in a sand trap at Pebble Beach. I know they can manage my wishes – not sure that golf clubs are yet allowing old golfers to spend eternity in their favorite sand trap!
Other questions to answer are: How do you want your household goods disposed of? Is there a contact list for who to contact and how current is that list? Old friends and relatives may not want to read about your demise on “Facebook” so someone in your inner circle should know who to call. Is there a particular hymn or musical piece you would like to share at your funeral or memorial? Do you have a favorite poem you would like to share? How do you want to be remembered?
We think of making these plans and having these conversations in terms of the aging process but it is equally important to talk to your younger family members about their wishes. In 2007 our 30 year old son was in a serious car accident and was in a coma for days. He was unmarried and worked on the west coast but fortunately for us the accident happened here in Falmouth where we could stay at the hospital with him. We had to have a lawyer clear the way for us to speak for him. At 30 he was an adult in the eyes of the law and the law does not automatically recognize parents as the next of kin. His medical insurer wanted to have him flown back to California where he lived but where he had no family. Happily everything worked out but it was a steep learning curve at a time of great stress. The lesson we learned as a family was that everyone over the age of 18 needs to have a health care proxy in place and someone needs to know how to find it!
In this day and age of “PINs” and passwords for everything from banking to thermostat control to email it is helpful to have all your numbers and codes recorded and updated on a fairly regular schedule. You may think your spouse, friend or adult child will know how to find these essential documents but they probably don’t have a clue. Put these important numbers in a document where it is easy to find. If you don’t want to have it lying around the house because of security concerns, give it to your lawyer for safe keeping and tell your family where it is.
Before your nearest and dearest come to visit this summer go through your house and think about what they would need to know if you were not there. Then make up a list they could use as a guide and share it with them. In our house that would include which lamps are turned on and off by “Alexa” so they don’t think the lights are burned out! It is the simplest things that can seem overwhelming when you are under stress. The pleasant side affect of going through your house is how much stuff you realize you can get rid of!
Mary Pat MacKenzie is a volunteer and board member at Neighborhood Falmouth, the local nonprofit that helps Falmouth Seniors stay safely and comfortably in their own homes for as long as possible. New volunteers always appreciated. Information at neighborhoodfalmouth.org or by calling 508-564-7543.