Offering straight talk on end-of-life issues

Series will cover options and topics for patients, families and caregivers

Medicine has continually advanced, yet has measured success primarily in the length of life, and not necessarily its quality. More open conversations among family members could help shift that trend, say the organizers of a series of community forums.

That idea will be central to the seven-part series titled "Conversations about Dying ... and Living Well until it Happens," which begins Thursday, Feb. 7, and continues on Thursdays until April 4.

"What we're trying to achieve is making conversations about death and dying more culturally acceptable and not taboo," said Susan Hearn, program manager for the sponsoring organization, called Choosing Options, Honoring Options.

Each forum will be offered twice on the day of its presentation, beginning at 2 and 7 p.m. This week's session, led by Dr. Michael Rabow of the University of California at San Francisco, is titled "Palliative Care of the Soul (Yours and Mine)." It will be presented in the Smullin Education Center on the Rogue Regional Medical Center campus, 2825 E. Barnett Road, Medford.

Retired cardiologist Dr. John Forsyth, who is chairman of the COHO group, will speak at the Feb. 21 session on "Patterns of Decline: Heart, Mind, Cancer, Lung — How Will I Die? When Shall I Plan?"

Forsyth says it's important to have open conversations among family members so that the older members' wishes are clearly understood.

"Despite the wonderful achievements we've made in the autumns of their lives, we didn't provide very good care at the end of their lives," says Forsyth.

The series will attempt to eliminate some of the discomfort surrounding the conversations about death. Forsyth believes that the discomfort may lessen but never entirely disappear.

"I think even for those of us who have had this conversation hundreds of times ... it's still uncomfortable," he says. "But when we do break through that initial discomfort, the rewards are wonderful."

Hearn says the conversations can help families make decisions and relieve potential guilt after death.

"Meaningful conversations about the end of life ... help family members know what to do if they can't speak for themselves at the end of life," says Hearn.

She says it is important to not only talk about medical decisions, but to discuss personal preferences and wishes with loved ones.

"What is important to that person? What they do want or what are they afraid of? What do they want to accomplish or provide to others?" Hearn says the wishes could be as simple as making sure a grandchild knows about a favorite recipe to as serious as saying a final "I love you" to someone.

Topics of other sessions include "Where Might You Be Near the End of Your Life? What Are the Options?," "Taking Care of Business: Why Plan Now?," "Scenes from the End-of-Life: With or Without 'The Conversation,'" "Families Tell Their Stories: Saying Good-bye," and "Advance Care Planning Mini-Workshop."

The March 21 presentation of "Scenes from the End-of-Life: With or Without 'The Conversation,'" will feature three Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors. They will perform a play about two families, one which has had a conversation about death and one which has not, and the resulting situations.

"(The responses have) been extraordinarily positive," Hearn says of evaluations of past programs. "We get things like, 'I'm not afraid anymore,' or 'If I'd have known ... .'"

Each session is approximately 90 minutes and includes a 15-minute session at the end for questions and answers.

The first six sessions (there is no session planned for Feb. 14 or March 14) will be held at the Smullin Center. The final session will be a practical workshop in small groups and will be held on April 4 at Rogue Valley Manor Skyline Plaza in Medford. It is available only by appointment, which can be made by calling 541-292-6466. The series is free but a donation of $10 is encouraged.

For more information, see

Shannon Houston is a reporting intern from Southern Oregon University. Reach her at

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