Conversations on dying well: Group tackles tough topics with clear eyes

A group of people sit on a table, talking.
Residents at the Parkshore Senior Campus in St. Louis Park work on a storytelling exercise during "Conversations that Matter" on Monday. The group discusses difficult topics like writing wills, planning funerals and completing health care directives.
Peter Cox | MPR News

People tend to shy away from conversations about dying, but at one senior apartment building in St. Louis Park, they're tackling that topic — month by month, subject by subject.

In a basement meeting room at the Parkshore Senior Campus recently, several dozen residents gathered for the latest in a series of “Conversations that Matter.”

Rachael Freed, a fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, led the discussion about imparting values to younger generations.

"It's very important for us to pass on the legacies from our immigrant ancestors," she told the 40 or so residents attending.

Ethical wills might have been the least difficult among the recent Conversations that Matter. This summer’s topics have included medical aid in dying, health care directives, preplanning one’s funeral and donating your body to the University of Minnesota.

"I've never been anywhere where they like to talk about death as much as this place,” said resident Joyce Pederson, who has helped plan Conversations that Matter since it started four years ago. “I think they feel very safe discussing things."

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Pederson said the clear-eyed discussions help people talk about issues they might not be able to elsewhere.

In the next three months, the Parkshore Senior Campus group will discuss wills and finances — and the agonizing question of when it's time to stop driving.

A resident asks a question during a meeting.
Lee Wilson, left, asks a question during a session of "Conversations that Matter" at the Parkshore Senior Campus.
Peter Cox | MPR News

The group is popular. The conversations draw as many as 100 residents from the 250 living there.

"You get a speaker who gives some ideas out, but then you get the people responding and that starts a lot of conversation,” said Lee Wilson, the current chair of the group. “Oftentimes at the end of the meeting, people won't leave, they just stay here, or when they go to dinner, it's the same conversation at the table with other people."

Dr. Stuart Hanson has lived at the Parkshore Senior Campus for three and a half years. He said the group gives the broader community of residents permission to talk about difficult end-of-life issues, even if they aren't taking part in the formal conversations.

"These subjects are on people's minds and when the community starts talking about them, it's sort of like the grapevine. 'You can talk about dying? You're planning your own funeral? Maybe I should think about that,'" he said.

Hanson had been a doctor and health care administrator. Shortly after he moved in, the group began recruiting him because of his experience caring for patients at the end of life.

“It's pretty healthy for a senior community to be working on issues that relate their life and death."