Vital Talk | KUOW News and Information

Vital Talk

Bernie Sadowski at the Ballard Senior Center. He credits the senior center for giving him direction after the death of his wife of 50 years.
KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

When Bernie Sadowski first came to the Ballard Senior Center in 2009, he didn’t care about life. His wife of 50 years had died.

A doctor takes a blood sample from an older patient.
Flickr Photo/World Bank Photo Collection (CC BY NC ND 2.0)/https://flic.kr/p/bq7jFt

American seniors are growing in numbers. But the number of geriatricians, doctors who specialize in treating older patients, is actually shrinking.

And there aren’t enough in the pipeline to meet the growing need.

Elderly couple walking
Flickr Photo/Abdulsalam Haykal (CC BY 2.0)

If you’re an older person, a fall can be devastating. One in every three older adults falls each year, and the risk of falling increases with each decade.

Jon Tucker (left), 76, has been a regular mall walker for 10 years.
KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

Shops aren’t open yet, but a little before 8 a.m., Bellevue Square is already buzzing with walkers.

Carrying a portable oxygen tank, Jon Tucker is one of them. “I’m not very fast, but I get there,” he says.

Mountlake Terrace resident Jennifer Calnon, 67, recently discussed her advance directive with her doctor. Starting January, Medicare plans to pay physicians for end of life counseling.
KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

For Jennifer Calnon, end-of-life discussions boil down to this: “This is my life,” she says. “I should be the one who gets to make the decision.”

Calnon, of Mountlake Terrace, is 67 years old and fairly new to retired life. These days she has a list of projects she wants to finish. Like finishing the pillowcase she started years ago for her daughter’s birthday and cleaning out her junk room. 

Recognizing they lacked votes in a key Assembly committee, authors of legislation that would have allowed terminally ill Californians to legally end their lives pulled the bill Tuesday morning.

The default in Washington state is to be rescusitated. Residents must fill out this bright green end-of-life care form (known as a POLST) to forgo being revived.
Washington State Department of Health

If you’ve talked with your family about end-of-life wishes – that’s the first step. You’ll also need paperwork to make your wishes clear.

There are different names for the documents you’ll need — living wills, advance directivesFive Wishes. They all serve the same purpose; they spell out what kind of medical treatment you’ll want if you become seriously ill, and how aggressive you want the treatment to be.

Ethicist Tom McCormick works with doctors on issues like death with dignity.
University of Washington School of Medicine Department of Bioethics and Humanities.

The doctor’s oath is to "do no harm." Some doctors have a hard time dealing with requests to help someone toward death. 

Ross Reynolds speaks with Tom McCormick, a senior lecturer emeritus at the Department of Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Washington, about doctors and Washington state's death with dignity law.

Maria Fabrizio

It’s a discussion that most people avoid: end-of-life planning.

Doctors say it’s important to have these conversations while you’re still able. But let’s face it, talking about advanced directives can be uncomfortable, even terrifying.

Alice Beaty watches her son Adam work on speech exercises at their home in Bellingham, Wash., on March 27, 2015. Adam is recovering from a severe car accident. It was initially unclear if he would survive.
KUOW Photo/Mike Kane

Palliative care has often been associated with elderly people who are dying.

Not anymore. Today, palliative care is more than that. It means supporting patients and their families, no matter their age. And it doesn’t mean that death is imminent.

Mark and Alice Beaty learned this first hand. A year and a half ago, they received a phone call that every parent dreads. Their son Adam had been in a rollover car accident on Interstate 5. He was 27 years old.

Greta Austin's family faced the issues surround end-of-life care when her father, George Austin, was diagnosed with cancer. He is pictured here with his wife, Shirley, On Easter Day, 2013.
Courtesy of Greta Austin

Greta Austin has spent a lot of time in medical waiting rooms.

Two years ago last fall, her father came to Seattle from Wisconsin for treatment, and she sat with him at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Vital Talk: Resources And Other Stories

Apr 15, 2015
Flickr Photo/Piermario (CC-BY-NC-ND)

We hope that our series "Vital Talk: Between Life And Death" inspires important conversations with your loved ones. Included below are additional stories from the KUOW archives as well as resources our reporters found helpful while working on this series.

Resources For Planning End Of Life

When the Legislature convenes next week, Rep. Sherry Appleton plans to introduce a bill for a silver alert system in Washington state.

Similar to the Amber Alert for children, this alert would be for elderly people with dementia who wander off. Appleton says 60 people went missing in the past year.

“Six-zero,” says Appleton. “I think it’s a lot of people.”

Joanne Hubacka has been doing hair for four decades at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington.
KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

Getting your hair done can be good medicine. It’s one reason why Joanne Hubacka, 69, is so busy. For four decades, Hubacka has been fixing people’s hair at life care center, a nursing home in Kirkland. Her profile is part of an ongoing series of audio portraits of people who challenge our assumptions of old age.