Writing about the end of life: May not be fun, but it is important #ahcj13

Lori Kersey

About Lori Kersey

Lori Kersey is a staff writer at the The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette. She is attending Health Journalism 2013 on an AHCJ-Rural Health Journalism Fellowship, which is supported by the Leona M. & Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

It’s one of the certainties of life: everyone’s going to die. And most of us also will deal with the deaths of a family member or loved one.

Writing about death, and the care people receive at the end of their lives, isn’t fun, but it’s important, Lisa Krieger, a science and medicine writer for the San Jose Mercury News, said at Health Journalism 2013 on Friday afternoon.

“It matters to us,” Krieger said. “It matters to the dying and it really matters to the surviving.”

Krieger moderated a panel featuring Muriel Gillick, a physician at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, and Ellen Goodman, the co-founder of a project that encourages people to talk about their end-of-life care wishes.

Krieger, who has a degree in biology and worked in hospitals before becoming a journalist, said she was not prepared to make decisions for her father when he got Alzheimer’s disease and ultimately died.

Her experience turned into a series about end-of-life care, which covered the financial toll on family members, lessons learned throughout the process, and the story of one woman nearing the end of her life.

Patients who understand their condition well often choose to have comfort care, as opposed to life-prolonging care, Gillick said.

And through their coverage, journalists can play a big role in helping people understand their options at the end of life.

“Telling the story in whatever way you can seems to have a profound effect on people’s choices,” she said.

While 70 percent of people say they want to die at home, only 24 percent of people actually do. The rest die in hospitals or nursing homes.

“It’s not just being in the hospital that can be problematic,” Gillick said. “It’s that people get a lot of stuff done to them that they may not necessarily want.” Journalists can portray the reality of end-of-life care, explain palliative care and trace the effects of Medicare policies on specific patients, she suggested.

Goodman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, co-founded the Conversation Project with the goal of getting people to hear and respect people’s end-of-life care choices. She suggested that journalists look for the emotional, personal stories that are there to be told. Some stories are buried in obituaries and death notices: Did someone die after a long illness? At home?

And she said there are plenty of economic angles. For instance, one quarter of Medicare expenses go to patients in their last year of life. One in 10 people have procedures done in the last week of their lives. But did they choose those procedures?

One thought on “Writing about the end of life: May not be fun, but it is important #ahcj13

  1. Julie Watkins

    Before retiring from social work, my focus was on the elderly population. The most important thing a person can do for their loved ones is talk about end of life issues and wishes. The second most important is to put it in writing. I always encouraged my clients to do both for themselves and their loved ones. It’s truly a gift to the living from the dying when, and if, the time comes.

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