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A Precious Gift: Conversation Ahead of the Crisis

Linda Doolin Ward and Sandra Doolin Aust
Our mother lived through the experience of our grandmother dying from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. When she received her own Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she sat down with us and had the “talk.” She knew the course of this disease and the decisions we would face as it progressed: increasing need for assistance with daily activities, appropriate precautions to keep her safe, treatment options that she wanted to avoid including feeding tubes and ventilators that she knew from experience would not be helpful. She was very clear about what she did and did not want. Over the next eight years, we were guided by her clear and early direction, even as she lost the ability to speak in the last two years of her life. It was heartbreaking to lose her, especially in this cruel way, but she had given us a precious gift—confidence that we were doing what she would want us to do.  

Medicare on Board

We are heartened, finally, that policymakers are recognizing the value of this gift and the need to make it easier for patients, families and clinicians to have “the talk,” also known as “advance care planning.” 
In September 2014, the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the IOM) released its report, Dying in America. As the NAM website states, “no care decisions are more profound than those made near the end of life” and we have a “responsibility to ensure that end-of-life care is compassionate, affordable, sustainable, and of the best quality possible.”  
Starting in January 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) will activate two payment codes for advance care planning services provided to Medicare beneficiaries by “qualified health professionals.” In paying for these services, CMS takes an important step in enabling seniors and other Medicare beneficiaries to make important decisions that give them control over the type of care they receive and when they receive it. 
As 2,200 people in our region turn 65 each month, the National Academy of Medicine report and Medicare’s new reimbursement policy are both important and timely. Diverse as we are, all of us will share the experience of dying. In our society, we try to push this fact of life away, and we would rather talk about almost anything else. Attention from the NAM gives us a reason to talk about it. We are honored in Kansas City that Dr. Christian Sinclair was on the NAM committee and Myra Christopher of the Center for Practical Bioethics was a reviewer.  

The Center Can Help

From our personal experience both in our respective roles at the Center for Practical Bioethics and Shepherd’s Center Central, as well as our role as daughters, we suggest that “having the conversation” ahead of the health crisis may be the most important conversation you and your family will ever have. All of us need to name someone to speak for us when we cannot speak for ourselves. Data show that 85% of us will die without the ability to make our own decisions for any number of reasons. 
The Center for Practical Bioethics has developed several tools available at, as well as a program called Caring Conversations® in the Workplace, to provide a process to help with this difficult “talk.” Anyone can download the Caring Conversations® workbook at no cost and employees from the companies and organizations who currently participate have the chance, with the help of a Center staff member, to understand the difference that initiating this talk can have in families. It requires us to be brave. And it’s worth it.  
It literally can be the difference between not having Thanksgiving together anymore because the family fought over what Mom would have wanted, and “Mom’s death brought us even closer together as a family because she made sure we all knew her wishes, and she would have been proud of how we came together to honor her.” It is never easy, but at the Center for Practical Bioethics, it’s called “the greatest peace of mind possible.”

Linda Doolin Ward is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Center for Practical Bioethics, Kansas City, Mo. Sandra Doolin Aust is the Director of Coming of Age Kansas City, Shepherd’s Center of KC Central, Kansas City, Mo. Both sisters reside in Kansas City, Mo.

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