Death is never an easy thing to talk about. But last Thursday, a sold-out crowd of over 900 people packed the Castro Theatre for End of Life: A Theatrical Exploration of Death, Dying, and Suffering—a thought-provoking performance by award-winning actors Frances McDormand and David Strathairn and a community conversation about death, suffering, and the mortality we all share.
Seniors At Home’s Palliative Care Program teamed up with Theater of War—the New York-based theater collective—to put on the special event as a part of Reimagine End of Life, a week-long series of public events throughout San Francisco exploring questions about life and death. Thousands of San Franciscans convened to collectively address why we’re here, to prepare for a time when we won’t be, and design what it means for us to live fully right up until the end.
Ancient Perspectives on Timeless Issues
Fresh off her Oscar win, McDormand —alongside acclaimed actor Strathairn — performed several scenes from the ancient Greek plays of Sophocles. The scenes, which depicted desperate and suffering patients and their conflicted caregivers, served as a vehicle for a town hall-style discussion about palliative and end of life decision making.
The audience grappled with listening to the guttural suffering coming from actors on stage including cries of anguish, anger and pain about their current physical conditions.
Redwing Keyssar, RN, Director of Seniors At Home’s Palliative Care Program knew that the event would be a perfect venue to help normalize conversations about dying in our community and she was right.
“There was a powerful energy in the room,” commented Redwing after the event. “The attention of the audience was palpable. It brought up challenging ideas and concerns that are on many peoples’ minds.”
Richard Goldberg, who attended End of Life, said he was initially apprehensive about what the evening would bring, but afterwards was glad to have been there. “Dealing with feelings about suffering and death can be very difficult and private,” he said. “To sit and discuss these ideas as a community was eye-opening for me. We really don’t have to do this alone.”
Jane Summers, who attended with her husband, found that these conversations continued even after the event was over. She says, “My husband and I talked all the way home and had the most remarkable conversation about our own wishes.”
Advancing the Conversation
The event brought awareness to the role of palliative care, which helps people experiencing a life threatening illness or at the end of life.
“Palliative care is about relieving suffering at any stage of an illness, whether you’re managing a serious chronic condition, like lung or heart disease, or dealing with a life-limiting disability,” explains Redwing.
Seniors At Home’s award-winning palliative care team provides holistic support to people experiencing serious illness and their loved ones and addresses physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering. The program is unique in that it operates under a social service model and offers services to anyone in the community—not just to hospital patients.
Many people receiving palliative care are going through aggressive treatment and often, understandably, are overwhelmed. The Seniors At Home palliative care team makes life more manageable. They’re available to answer questions, triage with doctors, and offer practical and emotional support.
Concrete Steps We Can All Take
Talking about death and dying is often feared and avoided. But facing these issues head on is important: not only in creating a better end of life experience for ourselves and our loved ones, but as a way to reflect on how we want to live as well.
Redwing, who is the author of Last Acts of Kindness; Lessons for the Living from the Bedsides of the Dying, offers many steps we can all take: “Attend a Death Café or an Advance Care Planning workshop; read books on the subject; and talk about it often.”
Redwing also encourages us to show up for friends and loved ones who are seriously ill or at the end of life, allowing ourselves to be present for the experience.
Redwing says, “If you don’t think about the reality of death as a part of life while you’re healthy and vital, it will be much more challenging to think about it when you are suffering.”
Learn more about Seniors At Home’s innovative Palliative Care Program >
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