Famed Clinicians: Prepared but Not Ready for Death

In Memoriam page at the National Institute on Aging

In Memoriam page at the National Institute on Aging – Click to enlarge.

When we think about dying, about the end of our lives, we may look to the experts for guidance — to those people who have long experience with various aspects of aging and the medical issues that complicate the process of dying. We assume that these people have their own end of life details all worked out.

This week a New York Times article by Alexandra Butler, a poet, helped us gaze into the experience of the well-prepared.

Robert N. Butler, M.D., the founding director of the National Institute on Aging, and his wife, Myrna Lewis, a social worker who specialized in support for older women, had all of the details worked out, and they shared all of this information with their daughter. Their preparations, so well conceived and worked out, assumed that Dr. Butler would pass away before his wife, but this did not happen. Just like anyone else, these two experts were confused at the unexpected turn of events. Moreover, when his wife was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it became clear that while they prepared and saw to the arrangements for the end-of-life, being prepared for death is a lot different than being ready to die.

In her article, Alexandra Butler writes that despite the uncertainty and challenge of watching her parents die, she was very glad that they had made the preparations for palliative care with no extraordinary interventions.

No one wants to die. Some people handle this by avoiding the topic — and the preparations. Others handle it by speaking incessantly about the expectation of dying. Still others, work hard to ensure that each minute detail is in place, so that family members spend time saying good-bye. Dr. Butler, who is also the individual who coined the term ageism, was prepared, but as his daughter points out, he was not ready.

When Dr. Butler died in 2010, I wrote this post for AsOurParentsAge.

Best Quotes

  • Our deaths are the last message we leave for those we love.
  • In a world where so many of our fellow human  beings live with threats of terror and destruction, if you are lucky enough to imaging you might have any measure of control over how you die, that is a privilege that would not go to waste.

Alexander Butler’s perspective offers support and encouragement to those of us — adult children and aging parents — as we navigate the the final years of aging.

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