End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Posts TaggedMichael Bernhagen

A “Must-See” Documentary: Consider the Conversation

I have never recommended a film on the end of life before. But people deserve to see “Consider the Conversation” because it deepens our passion for life and enriches our lives. Michael Bernhagen and Terry Kaldhusdal put their hearts into this film, and it shows. Michael came to the hospice movement after his mother’s decline and death showed him how far from a healthy, authentic relationship with mortality the medical profession, and the nation, are. Terry’s fifth documentary, this film includes interviews with his brother, Peter, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 53. Michael and Terry have given us a great gift.

The film opens with people stopped on the street in the midst of their daily routines and asked where they would like to die. They are surprised by the question, but they are uniform in their answers: At home. With family. In my lover’s arms. Home with family. In a quiet, peaceful place.

Americans almost always say they hope to die in the cherished surroundings of home and love, but precious few realize that hope. Gently, yet powerfully and persuasively, Bernhagen and Kaldhusdal goon to illuminate why this is true. They explain why it’s so hard to break away from the isolation and technology of hospitals, and invasive – yet often futile – medical therapies. Patients, family members, doctors, ethicists, ministers, public-health officials and others speak their truth to the camera’s lens.

They bring a multitude of perspectives, yet a common wisdom. Dying is part of our humanity, and shutting it out of our lives shuts out the part of our humanity that makes life meaningful and full. Some speakers take doctors to task for sending a message there’s “nothing to be done” when patients approach the end of life. Some describe conversations full of hope and purpose about how the medical team can help a person live well and make the most of precious remaining days.

Martin Walsh, a physician with advanced ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), delivers a profoundly beautiful explanation of the sacred task awaiting him – that of weighing the burdens against the joys of his fading life. His description of “100 things” will live with me and inform my own life assessment if that time comes.

If you know America’s attitude toward the end of life is deeply flawed, but you can’t put your finger on exactly why or how to make it better, you should see this film. If your own experience with a loved one, client or patient has left you wounded, you should see this film. If you want to talk about the inevitability of death with hope and joy and gratitude in your heart, you should see this film.

Find information about screenings of “Consider the Conversation” at www.ConsiderTheConversation.org. Or purchase it there for home viewing or educational purposes.

End-of-Life Care: A Portrait

by Paula Spahn
July 5, 2011
The New Old Age

Coming soon to a public television station near you: “Consider the Conversation: A Documentary on a Taboo Subject.”

Two friends and amateur filmmakers in rural southern Wisconsin put together this hourlong look at the way Americans think about, or try not to think about, what we’ve euphemistically come to call end-of-life questions.

Michael Bernhagen became a hospice worker after his mother died at age 81 of advanced vascular dementia without any health care professional ever mentioning the word “hospice” to his family. He conducted the film’s 40-odd interviews with chaplains and ministers, doctors, nurses, authors, researchers, patients and passers-by on New York City streets. Terry Kaldhusdal, a fourth-grade teacher whose brother died of pancreatic cancer at 53, was the guy behind the camera.

“Without our personal losses, this project probably wouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Bernhagen told me in an interview.

They spent a solid unpaid year — nights, weekends, holidays — shooting on a shoestring budget of $43,000. About 60 people made small contributions because they believed in the project or saw it as a way to memorialize loved ones; a handful of larger donors wrote checks for a few thousand dollars.

Accordingly, the film relies frequently on stock photos (soaring hawks, flickering candles) and soaring soprano voices. “We didn’t want to scare people. We wanted to inspire them to think, to talk and to act,” Mr. Bernhagen said. But while it may not be high art, “Consider the Conversation” provides moving narratives and important perspectives.

And its two producers, who initially had no idea how to place their work on public television but knew they wanted it to be viewable at no cost, can chalk up some successes. Their labor of love aired on West Virginia public television stations on July 2; it will run on New Hampshire Public Television on July 7 and 8. By August, it will have been shown on public television stations in central Michigan, Colorado, Indiana and New Mexico, and in Chicago and San Francisco.

For an updated screening schedule and more information, go to the filmmakers’ Web site, ConsidertheConversation.org.