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Let's Talk - Aging, Death and Dying


Elizabeth Kubler Ross once called America a “death-denying society,” a description not necessarily shared across cultures. In Bhutan – one of the happiest countries on the globe -- talking about death at least once a day is considered a necessity. Hyolmo Buddhists in Nepal regard dying as an intricate art to be learned throughout life. And in Papua, New Guinea, older people often describe themselves as “being the process of dying.”

I’m Kathleen Holt, coordinator of our HPPR Radio Readers Book Club announcing our 2018 Fall Read -- Let’s Talk – Aging, Death, and Dying.

Like many, I’ve had my own experience with aging, death and loss.  My story became personal as my middle sister and I walked beside our youngest sister to a bedroom in our mother’s home where she transitioned into Spirit, honoring us with her last words, “Thank you all. Love, love, love.” It was her benediction.

There are reasons for the state of “death” in our culture.  In the early 1900s, the average age at death was just 46 years old. Most died of infections or from accidents.  Today the average age at death is nearly 80.  And since many die from the “big four,” degenerative, often long-term chronic conditions of heart disease, cancer, cardiovascular and lung disease, caregiving is often one’s first experience with death.

The author of the first book in our series, Atul Gawande has a lot to say about the way we approach aging, death and dying. Speaking from his perspective as a physician in a field where dying is often considered failure to heal, as well as from his personal experience with aging parents, Gawande says,

“For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. . . Our most cruel failure, he says, is in how we treat the sick and aged in failing to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer, that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.”

Our second selection, Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese tells a story of acceptance, belonging and reconciliation. A teenager journeys through the mountains, summoned by his estranged and dying father to learn that the stories we don’t tell can be as important as the ones we do. The teen cautions, “Sad’s not a bad thing unless it gets a hold of you and won’t let go.”

We’ll end our fall series with Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” described by Terry Gross in a Fresh Air interview as a funny, heartbreaking and unflinching look at the authors’ parents’ stubbornness and denial as they become frail and increasingly unable to care for themselves.

Chast describes a time after her mother had been released from a treatment hospital. Her father was already in the early stages of dementia. “Oh, they were home for another year. [Mom] never really got her strength back and she didn’t get out of bed very much. She just got weaker and weaker. Visiting them was terrifying because I just thought how can I leave them – I should be like, moving in with them to take care of them at this point. But you know, it was a little complicated because I had my own family, – a job, children and a husband.”

Challenging, but enriching topics. We hope you’ll join us for the 2018 Fall Read – Let’s Talk – Aging, Death and Dying. Visit HPPR Radio Readers under the Features menu at hppr.org to find more information including a list of books and BookBytes from readers just like you.

I’m Kathleen Holt in Cimarron on behalf of our book club’s Steering Committee reminding you of author Gawande’s admonition, “that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.” (651)


Terry Gross with Roz Chast. A Cartoonist’s Funny, Heartbreaking Take on Caring for Aging Parents. Fresh Air. May 8, 2014. https://www.npr.org/2014/05/08/310725572/a-cartoonists-funny-heartbreaking-take-on-caring-for-aging-parents

Sue Campbell. Atul Gawande’s 5 Questions to Ask at Life’s End. Net Avenue – Where Grownups Keep Growing. February 10, 2015.  https://www.nextavenue.org/atul-gawandes-5-questions-ask-lifes-end/

Allison Tyler. 11 Fascinating Books to Help Us Talk about Death and Dying. Off the Shelf. Huffington Post. December 06, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/off-the-shelf-/11-fascinating-books-to-h_b_8422540.html

Other Books Considered

Neumann, Ann. The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America. 2016.

O’Rourke, Meghan. The Long Goodbye. 2011

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air. 2017