Every summer, Loretta Downs raises Monarch butterflies from eggs found in her Chicago garden. She uses their mysterious stages of metamorphosis as a metaphor for the miraculous cycle of life.
During that same time, and during the winter months she spends in Ajijic, she brings that same metaphor into her other passion: creating conversations about death and dying.
At 68 years old, Downs is a strong believer in having a responsible and spiritual death. As a death and dying advocate and end-of-life care practitioner, she says, “My mission in life is to create opportunities to talk about death and dying in positive terms. Anyone who has loved ones and/or assets and walks around in a human body has the responsibility to take care of their end-of-life business.”
For the past seven years, Downs has been on the Ethics Committee at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, the same hospital where she was born, where she sees the conflicts and hard deaths that are created by lack of preparation. “I’ve watched families being destroyed, people stop talking to one another. There’s no reason for that to happen.”
She continues: “Lingering deaths can be avoided by making decisions about the burdens and benefits of treatments. If we aren’t talking about this, the default is that we end up on a conveyer belt of healthcare with this treatment, that surgery. Most doctors aren’t trained about death; they’re trained to fix things. They don’t realize how much of a hardship it can be to prolong one’s dying process. Wouldn’t most of us rather choose quality of life versus longevity?”
Downs received her introduction to death and dying while working in decorative accessories sales in the Chicago Merchandise Mart – the largest wholesale facility in the world. There, she met plenty of creative men who worked in the industry, many who were gay and contracted AIDS.
“In the 1980s,” says Downs, “the industry was purged by AIDS. Many of my friends died. AIDS was a death sentence, so the patients knew they were dying. I wasn’t afraid to be around these dying friends during the six years I spent volunteering on Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center’s AIDS unit. The level of care and caring in that place was extraordinary. The unit became a model for other hospitals.”
She would bring meals to the patients, talk with them and hold their hands. She would comfort the mothers, letting them cry on her shoulder. It was there that she learned how to die hard and how to die well.
“What I saw was that those who fought and denied their death suffered more, along with their families. Those who accepted their death made a choice to live their lives as fully as possible. Dying is a spiritual process with medical implications and legal constraints. When a person knows they’re dying, it can open the door to personal growth and create opportunities for forgiveness, bounding exchanges of love, and learning about living.”
By the year 2000, drugs were being developed and distributed to AIDS patients. That was the same year she retired and her mother entered into a nursing home.
Says Downs, “I had learned a lot about being with dying people on that AIDS unit, so I became an official trained hospice volunteer at my mother’s nursing home. I’ve always enjoyed being around elders. Some of my best friends are in their 90s.”
When Downs turned 60 she went back to school to get her Master’s degree in Gerontology so that she could qualify to speak at conferences.
“For many years I spoke about advanced care planning to senior service organizations and directors of nursing homes and funeral parlors.”
In Downs’s upcoming talk at Open Circle (see below), she will discuss The Five Wishes, a 12-page legal document that was developed by the organization, Aging With Dignity.
“This document is a helpful tool for exercising control over your end-of-life care,” she says. “These wishes will clarify who and what matters most to you when you reach the end of the life line. You don’t need an attorney to do advance health care planning. Start this process when you’re healthy, and then a second time when you’re diagnosed with a serious illness, so that you can relook at what matters most.”
Downs believes that there is bliss to be found at the end of life. “Some of us have a choice to leave behind a legacy of peacefulness by dying well. I’ve witnessed many people embody this peacefulness at the end of their lives. The Buddhists talk about right action and right speech. I talk about right death. It’s an individual decision but we all need to be talking about it and making dying a significant part of life.”
Downs will present The Five Wishes, Sunday, January 28, at Open Circle, 10:30 a.m., at Lake Chapala Society. Doors open at 10 a.m.