Monday, May 1, 2017

The Angst of Aging in the Age of Trump

© Charles D. Hayes

I’ve been writing about aging and mortality for many years, and the older I get, the slower the going and the greater the existential gravity. I’ve long believed that each of us has a threshold for change, and that once past that threshold, we begin to grow fond of the notion that we are ready to be out of here. Enough already.

Okay, maybe not fond, but warming to the idea that there is an upside to nonexistence because it means an absence of the steady escalation of angst associated with the physical and emotional realities of aging. It is a subtle biological gift, a benefit of aging, a psychic legacy of sorts that reminds us that we are mortal animals and our time is almost up. Better to cease to exist than to be overcome by the fear and disillusionment of a world we no longer understand. It helps explain why we say the deceased are at rest.

The frustrations we experience increase daily. At the social level, the music of newer generations begins to sound like unnecessary loud noise, and the things that interest younger generations begin to seem mindless and strange. You find their body-art tattoos appalling and their incessant texting rude, as they lose themselves in their cellphones while in your presence. You want to tell young people that the things they fret about today will dissipate and seem meaninglessness in time, but you know they won’t listen. You know they must learn from experience, the same way you did. You become more and more appreciative of the old saying that “youth is wasted on the young.”

Then there are the personal frustrations I suspect some of you share, like awakening too many times in the night for bathroom breaks. You arise in the morning and have trouble focusing for a time because of cataracts. Rapidly failing eyesight makes reading harder and harder. You feel you’re getting exceptionally clumsy, and you can’t get anything open. Today’s packaging seems designed to keep contents out of the hands of children and seniors.

Like many, I used to swear that I would not spend my final years engaged in daily discussions about aches and pains. But each year, it gets harder as these ongoing little traumas increasingly occupy the front pages of our awareness.

More often than not, written instructions don’t seem to make sense. Computers and smartphones always seem too smart by half, and you can’t seem to turn anything on or click on any button without setting off all sorts of things you didn’t request or expect. You seem to stumble and fall more easily than ever. You drop things more often, break dishes, and bump your head on the kitchen cabinets. You find yourself frequently experiencing a slow burn of anger rising from a sense of losing control, not to mention your memory, even as you realize you are affirming the stereotypical actions of old codgers. 

And then, in moments of sincere thoughtfulness, you realize these annoyances aren’t really problems at all. You recognize that it’s the people with devastating health issues who qualify as having problems, that several hundred thousand seniors are now literally being warehoused with feeding tubes in nursing homes. Some are given psychotropic drugs to make them easy to manage because the facility has too little staff. Many of these folks spend their days and nights just staring at the ceiling or off into space.

When you reflect on this kind of existence, you may recall stating a vow that if you are ever diagnosed with dementia, you will check out before you tip over the edge, because nothing is more frightening than the thought of being lost in the maze and dark corridors of your own mind. But then, how will you know when you are about to go over the edge and become truly lost? 

With so much of the present seeming more and more alien and very little future ahead, the past begins to loom larger. Music that was popular when we were young can bring a flood of memories of safer, happier times. And yet, as pleasant as reflecting on the past can be, today’s politics in America represent new concerns that make most of our other worries seem small because we are living in an era of angst: the age of Trump and the time of White House strategist Stephen Bannon’s fourth turning. 

Future historians will likely refer to Trump’s election as a black swan, an event no one was prepared for but is later described as inevitable after it’s happened. Never in our wildest dreams did we expect that the most qualified person ever to seek the presidency would run against the most unqualified person and not win. We were aware of the ubiquity of misogyny, but we underestimated its depth and the ability of the malady to hide in so many camouflage rationalizations, such as, “A woman as president is fine, just not Hillary.”

Nothing prepared us to be so upset, so alarmed, and so fearful for the future. Perceiving that the current president is so unfit, so ignorant of the demands of his job as president, and so mentally unbalanced, we feel as if we may yet live to see the end of life in America as we have always known it.

Then it hits you that the whole world is experiencing the same problem that comes naturally with aging: too much of the familiar becoming unfamiliar. A workplace under siege by digital technology. Employment uncertainty. Global warming. Health insurance on the brink of imploding. Terrorism. Too many strangers. Too many refuges crossing too many borders and practicing customs that seem odd and threatening. Too many citizens ready to go to war over the nature of reality.

Brexit and right-leaning political movements all over the world are simply manifestations of this frustration: the exaggerated angst of uncertainty. They’re a clue that we are indeed mortal animals, but they’re also a reminder of too much change too soon. The world at large wasn’t supposed to reach its fill of the unfamiliar until old age. Too much uncertainty arrives with fear and disillusionment, and unfortunately, the chaos fosters a frantic need to protect one’s own worldview from doubt. Simply put: We are suffering the fear of mortality salience, the existential core of the human condition.    

Millions of our fellow citizens have spent most of their lives paying little attention to politics, and now we are paying the price for that gravely unfortunate mistake in judgment. We have been warned over and over that, as Thomas Paine put it, “what we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly.” And yet, the price of our existence hasn’t been cheap at all. Arlington Cemetery stands in sharp contrast to the notion that there hasn’t been a steep price for our place in the world. The irony is that appreciating this reality begins to feel intuitive only when we have a short time left and little ability to make a difference.

At the same time, our big-picture perspective is likely to be better than it’s ever been from a long life of experience. We are acutely aware by now that we live by narratives and that we always have. We live by stories that have a point in search of a plot, and we become accustomed to expecting a beginning, a middle, and an end to make sense of things.  

But, when we approach the end of our own story, we like to think that when it’s over, things will go on and on for those we leave behind and that those who survive us will be safe, healthy, and prosperous. Reflecting about our political disorder brings to memory the millions of people killed in wars, people who died too soon, never knowing the outcome of the battle or war but having the end come in the beginning or middle of their own life’s narrative.

When you think of refugees fleeing the war-torn regions of the world and how their stories will end, you then circle back to awareness of your physical aches and pains but determine not to let them become a big deal. You may suddenly be overwhelmed with the thought that it might be better to die on the battlefield than to die not knowing if America will ever recover from the utter inanity and egregious incompetence exhibited in the reign of Donald J. Trump. You realize that, of all the things in life that can go wrong, the most unforgivable are those borne of the ignorance of arrogance bathed in the rhetoric of bigotry and racism—the same strain of ignorance that causes us to misunderstand people with customs that seem strange. This brand of ignorance could be dispelled to a large extent through education, if only all the peoples of the world were to come to believe that all human lives matter enough to be treated as if they really and truly do.
Most frustrating of all is the realization that we have learned these lessons from experience. We could easily pass them on, were it not for the fact that youth is impervious to wisdom, especially in the age of Trump. Let us hope the age of Trump passes before we do.  

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Life’s Purpose: Ripples

© Charles D. Hayes

If you ask people how they would like to be remembered, you will likely be met with silence, often with a look of bewilderment. Legacy is not something that most people give a lot of conscious thought to apart from material bequests. Psychologically though, at a deep subconscious level, how and for what we will be remembered is far important than many of us realize. For some of us this becomes clear as time passes.  

To understand what an impact our inevitable mortality has on our behavior, all you have to do is imagine how different our goals, aspirations, and ambitions would be if we were truly immortal. For example, being poor at any given time would be far less important than the realization that, in an unlimited future, you would have plenty of time to achieve whatever you wanted in life. If you were broke today, there would be many opportunities to become wealthy, maybe not this year, but in a few centuries, no problem. If you wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, or scientist, no hurry; you could have a go at every career available.

But such is not the case. We are time constrained. If we are too slow to act, some windows of opportunity narrow and some slam shut.

The great difficulty in dealing with the essence of mortality is that to study the subject is to be restricted metaphorically to forever beating around the bush. We can get only so close but never bridge the distance and come back. Near-death experiences don’t count because they’re experiences all the same. We can imagine sleep as a time-out from consciousness, and yet we dream. The best we can do is try to think of time before we were born. When we do that, we can begin to grasp the consequential command of time. 

If we dig deep in psychology, what the evidence suggests is that, on many levels and in many different ways, we human beings are engaged consciously and subconsciously in trying to do things that are meaningful. We seek such satisfaction not just in the moment, but for our lives to matter in the greater scheme of things. Our impending inevitable demise plays a big role in determining our behavior and our attitude toward others.

Ordinary citizens often talk about giving something back to society to compensate for the tax of their existence. Reflecting this idea, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote about our species’ drive to be a hero while simultaneously being prone to deny our mortality. David Solie, in his book How to Say It to Seniors, describes behavioral evidence that many aging citizens are groping and grasping for something to identify as their legacy without consciously realizing that this is what is on their minds. 

One of the most inspiring writers I’ve encountered on the subject of mortality is Irvin D. Yalom, author of Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. Yalom is a highly regarded psychiatrist who has ventured farther than most into the figurative thicket of mortality. In his first chapter, titled “The Mortal Wound,” he pulls no punches, declaring that the supreme gift of self-awareness comes at great cost. “Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably, diminish and die.”

He suggests the fear of death has a long reach, which is mostly subconscious, and that people who fear death the most are those who feel as if they have never truly lived. Further, he points out how Epicurus anticipated the notion of the unconscious by suggesting that excessive religiosity and an unrelenting drive for wealth and power represent counterfeit versions of immortality.   

Yalom says of all of the ideas emerging from his practice none has been as powerful as the idea of rippling. He describes rippling as concentric circles of influence that we generate, often without being aware of what we are doing. These ripples become our legacy, and the ways we can spawn them are practically endless, bringing us back to time as a relentless taskmaster and as an overtly constraining force governing our very existence.

When we study the social psychology of culture, it becomes clear that what we decide is meaningful in life is a result of having bought into vast oceans of arbitrary assumptions. Thus, our cultural indoctrination, even in the best of circumstances, is haphazard and dehumanizing—dehumanizing precisely because of our suppressed anxiety and the aspirations we view as unachievable due to time limitations.

Culture is metaphorically an hourglass that pressurizes the act of living, while the brevity of life pits us against those we regard as outsiders. When we are reminded of our mortality, or when our interests appear to clash with those whom we deem to be others, what we tend to do is to take stock of our lives defensively as we reaffirm our beliefs and worldview. Simply put, we close ranks by distancing ourselves from people we can’t relate to.       

We must loosen the grip of our respective cultural indoctrinations in order to stop concentrating on the pressurized cultural shoulds we have internalized subconsciously. When we begin to experience enough freedom of thought from our upbringing to put the remainder of our lives into practical perspective, we can create the kind of ripples we would like to set in motion and later be remembered for, independent of our culture’s arbitrary expectations.

This is not to say that what’s expected of us is by nature bad, only that it’s impersonal and ultimately disinterested in the details of how our lives actually turn out. In other words, we are expected to do something with our lives, but rarely are we told precisely what we must do to live them out.

In the world of self-help advice, we’re given myriad methods for finding the so-called truth of existence. Lots of these require magical thinking, and many are fraudulent. But, in my view, one way to gain some genuine insight into what we would like to be remembered for is to simply ponder our most cherished memories, compare them with our aspirations, and imagine what we would like to accomplish if we were truly immortal. Then we can concentrate on a realistic assessment of the time we have left to live, think it through, and set our hourglass accordingly.   
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Friday, July 24, 2015

Atticus Finch vs. Atticus Finch

© Charles D. Hayes

Harper Lee’s shocking revelation in Go Set a Watchman offers us an extraordinary learning opportunity. Set twenty years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, this second novel discloses that Atticus Finch, the saintly hero of the first book, actually harbored some of the racist views dominant in the early twentieth century.
In Watchman, Jean Louise, known earlier as Scout, returns home as an adult only to have the idealized memories of her childhood destroyed by a reality she had been sheltered from as a child. Many readers are crushed to learn this other side of the story, but the response is forcing us to admit that Mockingbird has been sheltering us all for half a century.
In the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck portrays Atticus Finch as an exemplary human being in a small town populated by white citizens, whose racial prejudice is so deeply ingrained that they would rather convict an innocent black man than embarrass a lower-class white family. But when you merge the Atticus of that story with the Atticus portrayed twenty years later, what you have is a much more convincing character in context. 
Harper Lee’s experience bringing Mockingbird to publication in the late 1950s suggests that her editor held reformist views about human rights and helped Lee mold Atticus into a virtuous moral icon. Now, absent the former editor’s influence, Watchman seems more truthful to Lee’s experience growing up in the South. I’m sympathetic with critics who suggest that the supremacy of white culture is also palpable in Mockingbird. Of course it is, because racism was endemic in the South in those days, but the idealism in the story moved millions.
Imagining Gregory Peck as Atticus making racist statements is like going to the doctor for a common cold and finding out you have cancer: it’s earth-shattering. In the second novel, discovering the truth about the father she idealized makes a grown-up Scout sick to her stomach. This should offer us some insight into how people feel who are targeted for discrimination because of their race.
Racial bigotry is complicated, but it’s not hard to understand. Psychologist Gordon Allport laid the subject bare six years before the publication of Lee’s first book. His work tells us everything we need to know to function peacefully as adults on a planet teeming with racial diversity.
We experience, internalize, and record bias and racial prejudice in a smoldering hotbed of congealed and congested memories residing in our subconscious. When circumstances pose questions about race, we rationalize because our feelings are vague and indecipherable, existing as they do in an enormous database of conflicting experience. Our gray matter keeps records, not of what is right, but of what it accepts as real.
That we always have the upper hand in emotional matters is an illusion, especially in social matters concerning ethnicity. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of our reasoning ability as a rider and our emotional subconscious as an elephant illustrates how we hold racial biases without being aware of the fact. The metaphor emphasizes the power of our subconscious and the difficulty of taming our emotions. The Atticus Finch in Mockingbird is a rider in complete control, but in Watchman his elephant rumbles and, at times, trumpets.
I’ve always found it wretchedly disappointing that on a Saturday, people can read books or watch movies like To Kill a Mockingbird, Roots, Mississippi Burning, or 42 and empathize and sympathize completely with the oppressed characters in the drama. Taking in the story, they agree wholeheartedly about the injustice being depicted. And yet, by Monday morning, their elephant is back to humming along, murmuring low-frequency racial prejudice.
In Watchman, Atticus is said to be 72, my current age, so I can relate to his being cantankerous. But more importantly, I remember what it’s like to grow up in a racist community. It’s a context of prejudicial social conformity with so few exceptions that I can recall none like the first Atticus, myself included.    
In a recent debate, I was asked if I thought we know more today about human behavior than, say, William Shakespeare knew in his time. After some deliberation, I had to say no. The Bard was an astute observer of human behavior, and the research conducted in recent decades offers hard evidence supporting how predictably we, or Shakespeare’s characters, will behave.
What we’ve discovered is critical for improving human relations—namely that we are much more dependent upon context and much less firm, resolute, and unwavering in our stalwart character than we have been taught. This is significant. In Watchman, instead of continuing to idealize Atticus, Lee puts him in precise context with his time and place.
It’s time we stopped romanticizing Mockingbird through Scout’s childlike innocence. Public naiveté is an enormous obstacle to overcoming bigotry. The same idealism that enables belief in Mockingbird’s Atticus is an impediment to acknowledging Watchman’s older characterization of Atticus and the subtle racism that’s still ubiquitous today.
We need to apply everything we know about human behavior to relegating bigotry and racism to the dustbin of history. The objective is simple: strive to make the first Atticus the norm, not the exception. Mockingbird is aspirational fiction; working through the disenchantment in Watchman is a way to begin the dialogue necessary to achieve genuine equality.
When Scout confronts her father and they have an emotionally aggressive exchange, it opens the conversation we should be having now about dealing with intolerance. If you don’t think racism is a problem today, either you are being childish or you aren’t paying attention.
If you are avoiding reading Watchman because you prefer the illusion of innocence in Mockingbird, I think Scout would say it’s time to grow up and speak up. 
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Monday, April 6, 2015

A Rhapsody of Falling Apart

© Charles D. Hayes

Human genetics are a roll of the dice, and nothing highlights life’s unfairness like health issues. Some people sail through life in great health while others never seem to get a break, having one illness after another until they finally succumb. Needless to say, health is a major topic of interest among seniors.

Far too much attention is paid to the economic juggernaut but false promise of products and services offering eternal youth. What we ought to focus on is the reality of our demographics: Because of our aging population, we are facing an economic and human needs train wreck of epic proportions.

Let me say first that I’ve always promised never to let my physical condition become the dominant focus of my conversation. But now at an age some consider elderly, I find that reaching a period in one’s life when one seems at times to be literally falling apart is interesting in itself to observe. At the same time, it is also a wake-up call about America’s long-term health care predicament because millions of people are having similar experiences, many with grave consequences.

The sudden appearance of new ailments cracks open a critical window on reality. The more often the occurrence, the wider the view, and the greater the need to pay attention to the politics of health care.

In 2011, Laura L. Carstensen published A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity. More recently, she wrote a piece for Time magazine suggesting the baby pictured on the cover could live to age 142. The evidence is clear that we are living longer, but what we aren’t doing as a society is preparing for it.

The baby-boom generation comprises 78 million individuals, with more than 40 million already over age 65 and four million more adding to that number every year. The elder bulge will continue to expand until 2029. Elsewhere I’ve written extensively about this subject, mostly with positive expectations. We have many dedicated people working tirelessly to meet the economic demographic challenges of aging, but we aren’t even close to making acceptable progress. Time is running out.

If you are introspective and curious as you reach advanced age, you may, like me, become hyperaware of the seasons of life: the cycles of existence, falling leaves, sunsets, magnificent trees, and winter. All seasonal reminders of mortality and similar patterns begin to stand out. Conditions that match your expectations seem to pop up everywhere for perspective, and new incidents of physical pain give rise to serious moments of thoughtfulness.

These experiences bring to mind the Brahodya competition, something that religious scholar Karen Armstrong describes as having occurred among tenth-century Indian priests. In it, a group of priests would compete to describe and capture the essence of reality. The contest winner was the one whose comments could render the others dumbstruck. This brief moment represented the Brahman—something akin to the highest form of consciousness one can achieve.

Dumbstruck silent is a condition similar to what I refer to as a time-out for thoughtfulness, contemplation, and perspective, especially when we consider what the future portends for aging citizens. Geriatric health care is ripe for a Brahodya competition.

As we age, seniors read the obituary section of the newspaper more frequently because more and more people we have known show up there. In so many of these cases, the individuals featured awoke one morning with an ailment and a few months later ceased to live. So it’s not surprising that one’s new aches and pains come with a few moments of dumbstruck wonder, prompting the questions, “Is this it? Is this what will take me out?” It’s an experience worthy of introspection.

Armstrong offers another example of reflective silence when, at the end of a symphony, the last note is played and one is left with a moment of stunning serenity. I find this comparable to watching a great movie and realizing the end has flashed on the screen. Stirring music is playing, the credits are rolling, and you’re still lost in thought with at least a subliminal awareness that everyone’s story comes to an end. These, too, are opportunities to think.

 Inspirational moments often occur when listening to beautiful music. A crescendo of emotion can be so overwhelmingly exquisite that it seems too good to be true, beyond the capacity of music to arouse. Such moments of stunning exhilaration are times to reflect as well.

I’m not suggesting that all of the circumstances giving pause for thoughtfulness are the same, only that they are related, or that they belong to the same category of openness to experience. Dumbstruck moments can be called an aha, a flash, an inspiration, an epiphany, or simply a time-out, but they all yield a similar opportunity to take stock and truly appreciate the reward of still being alive—a reminder to help raise awareness to the problems that beg public attention. We owe this effort to the younger generations, whose lives will be affected by the current tidal wave of aging citizens.

In The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, published this year, Ai-Jen Poo is launching a movement promoting some very kind, thoughtful, and practical ways to address our aging health care concerns. But, in spite of our best efforts, the reality of aging demographics portends a fast-approaching social catastrophe.

Ai-Jen Poo calls our attention to the economic estimates made by the Alzheimer’s Association that the total health care costs for Alzheimer’s over the next four decades could be $20 trillion. That’s not a train wreck. That’s a nuclear blowout. It can’t happen. It’s out of the question. We either have to cure Alzheimer’s or take drastically different steps in the way we address the care of patients.

In thirty of fifty states, the shortage of nurses is expected to increase for decades. The shortage of doctors in the field of geriatrics is shocking. Medical professionals say we need a doctor-patient ratio of 1 to 300, but by 2030, the current estimate is 1 to 3,800. That’s a derailment.

Medicare is already so inadequately funded that it’s become harder and harder to find physicians who will accept new patients. Eligibility for Medicaid requires proof of abject impoverishment. We don’t even have the political command to address the long-term viability of Social Security. More and more seniors are struggling just to get by, even as the costs of health care escalate.

Families increasingly can’t meet the whole burden of caring for aging relatives, and the cost of institutional care continues to skyrocket. As a workforce, health care givers are underpaid across the board, and the turnover rate is appalling. We have to think and act our way out of these dilemmas. Without a political effort nationwide to meet the demand for services, millions will suffer needlessly.        

One of the things I’ve learned from living, studying, and talking to aging peers is that with a long life comes affection for one’s own life experience. More often than not, the idea of changing places with someone in a younger generation is rejected as undesirable. In and of itself, feeling a sense of ownership of one’s experiential knowledge is worthy of a time-out for introspection.

This might seem like a stretch, but when you acquire new aches and pains that are inevitable with aging, I suggest making the best of them. Consider listening more often to your favorite music and creating an insightful emotional and intellectual rhapsody of the whole experience. Apply some perspective to having been afforded the life of a human being, because when you consider the odds of it ever happening, you are inevitably dumbstruck.

Whenever we feel a new ache or pain, we should be aware that, for every one of us still in good enough health to be thoughtfully reflective, there are literally thousands of others in worse shape. In nursing homes across the country, aging citizens are routinely shot so full of stupor-inducing medication and so dependent on intrusive feeding tubes that, in effect, they live a hydroponic existence—wearing adult diapers, spending their days struggling simply to breathe and swallow, unable to speak or sit up—and they do this for weeks, months, even years.

Nature seems cruel in many instances, where aging and sickly wild herd animals end up in the jaws of predators while still alive. And it was the custom in many tribes of ancient people to abandon their elderly, leaving them to die in the elements without provisions. In comparison to the nursing home scenario described above, however, nature and the traditions of some ancient tribal cultures seem much less diabolical. If you doubt this, visit a few care facilities, especially in low-income areas.

In her book, Carstensen warned about failing to meet the challenges of aging in America. I’ve always shared her observation about taking dire warnings with a grain of salt, but a trainload of salt is inadequate to describe what the future portends if we stay the present course without taking immediate actions equal to the range of problems we face. We aren’t prepared for people living as long as they do now, let alone far past the century mark.

Of course, myriad technological breakthroughs, from remote monitoring to distant diagnostics, can give us hope. They include robotics and innovations in assisted living arrangements to help aging seniors. But these are expensive, and they also leave us open to crisis during power outages and technological failure.

So, you may think it trite or disingenuous of me to speak in terms of a rhapsody of falling apart, considering all I’ve said, but death is an inevitable reality for each and every one of us. It’s long past time that we have grown-up discussions about the realities of aging. Products and services promising endless youth are not the answer, and those who promote them are selling illusion.

Every time we experience a moment of reflection for whatever reason, it’s an opportunity to think seriously about the future, to engage in dialogue with our elected representatives and social media, and to urge people to wake up and speak up.

Aging demographics are on track full speed ahead, and unless we make some serious adjustments, we are bound for an economic disaster that is likely to play out as a political blame game. Millions of seniors will pay a price of needless suffering simply because our political parties refuse to deal with the economic and social realities of aging. It’s already happening, but too few are calling attention to our collective denial.

My Books and Essays on Amazon
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Friday, December 12, 2014

Getting Ready for the Big Change-Out

© Charles D. Hayes

If you were to die in the next ten minutes, are there  things your surviving family members would need to know but would have no way of figuring out? Are there things that you would really want them to know? If your answer is yes, please read on.

For nearly four decades I worked in the Alaska oil industry. Most of my time was spent on the North Slope, although I worked in several other remote locations as well. All of those positions involved sharing a job on a shift rotation schedule with equal time off. Sharing a job in a high-stress work environment required extraordinary cooperation in learning how to assume responsibility for the actions of others and to communicate effectively.

As long as both parties were competent and sincere in their efforts to share accountability, the emphasis focused on communication skills. The end of one shift and the beginning of another, when alternates met to change places, was referred to as change-out day. Invariably, even with the best of intentions, change-out would occur with the employee who left the job having forgotten to share something important, something the person coming on shift would really need to know. This oversight was so common it was to be expected, in spite of two weeks of intensive note-taking and a concerted effort to cover everything that you thought the alternate would need to know. The forgetfulness often resulted in follow-up phone calls to the employee at home. 

Keep this in mind and just try to imagine how many things could be overlooked when a person dies unexpectedly without having left any change-out notes. Every day thousands of people die from cardiac arrest, traffic collisions, and myriad accidents and ailments that leave no time for putting one’s affairs in order. The absence of effective communication leaves a gaping void that others must struggle to fill without any knowledge of the deceased’s intentions. The survivors will have infinite questions they wish they had asked, but the opportunity is forever lost.

In preparing for my final change-out, I’ve had a good example to follow in my grandfather, who was born in 1889 and died in 1982. He was sixteen years older than my grandmother, and when he reached his seventies, he began preparing my grandmother for his demise by frequently going over and over the things she needed to know and the things she would need to do when he passed away. Even so, there is still a great deal I would like to know about my grandparents, but it’s too late to ask. The opportunity is also lost for their great-great grandchildren to know as much as they could about their distant ancestors.    

Death is a subject that most of us avoid for understandable reasons, but if you’ve ever been with someone who had to put the necessary pieces together after a family member has died unexpectedly, or if you’ve had this experience yourself, you know how hard it is to answer questions when there is no one left alive who can answer them.

All of us know we should keep records, lists, and personal notes to keep our affairs in order, especially as we age and our memory becomes less reliable, but does anyone else have that information or know where to find it? Let me suggest a simple way to keep your data for yourself and your family, just in case this information is needed someday. Create a written file—it can be hand-written, on a computer, or even on a cell phone as long as those who should have the information know the file’s name and location and can attain access.

For many of us an easy way to do this might be to work on the data a few minutes every day, week, or month until the file is in good shape. It’s likely that you will always be a little behind and there will always be more things to add or details to update, but just imagine what a difference your change-out notes can make if they are needed someday.

Needless to say, security is of paramount importance with this kind of information and every effort should be made to make sure it cannot be hacked via malware or be subject to being read by anyone unauthorized to do so. One method you can use is to print a hard copy of the basic file, fill in the sensitive material by hand, and keep the copy under lock and key or simply save the file only on a thumb drive.

I’m offering my initial template list here to serve as a guide for your planning. As with any change-out, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, so I would very much appreciate your thoughts and suggestions based on your own experience. As the list improves over time, I will post updates.    

Practical matters — location and pertinent details for the following:

  • your will
  • life insurance
  • burial or cremation preferences and wishes
  • Social Security number
  • auto insurance
  • driver’s license number
  • health insurance
  • hereditary medical history
  • tax documents
  • computer passwords
  • A narrative about your computer files
  • deeds, titles
  • debts and payees
  • bank accounts and investments
  • preferred charities
  • addresses and telephone numbers of people to notify
  • personal property disposition
  • photos and keepsakes
  • an obituary draft or notes to include:
    • education
    • military service
    • work history
    • parents’ names
    • career achievements
    • proudest moments 
      How you wish to be remembered
  • your aspirations for others
  • special things you would like to share
  • favorite foods
  • favorite colors
  • favorite subjects
  • hobbies
  • fondest memories
  • favorite movies
  • favorite books, quotes, literary passages
  • favorite music
  • reading suggestions
  • regrets
  • life lessons
  • things you wish you had done
  • apologies  
    Final wishes
    If you have a choice, where do you want to spend your last days—in a hospital or at home? With others around you or alone? What music would you like to hear? Would you want a visit from the clergy?  
    Advance Directives