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Discussing End-of-Life Issues Over Dinner

Trend shows boomers are discussing these serious topics in informal settings known as 'Death Dinners'

death dinner end of life conversation planning hospice palliative dnr burial plan directives wishes known party friends wine overhead (John Fedele/Blend Images/Corbis)

"Death Dinners" are getting adults talking about end-of-life decisions in a relaxed atmosphere. — John Fedele/Blend Images/Corbis

En español | So you've gotten an invitation to a dinner party. Should you bring a hearty California cabernet, a decadent dessert or a fresh copy of your living will, complete with step-by-step instructions?

In an odd trend, boomers are hosting so-called death dinners to talk with friends and relatives about the issues no one wants to talk about — death, dying and end-of-life decisions. The objective is to head off family conflicts over medical care and to share concerns about quality-of-life issues.

Among the conversation starters: Would you want a feeding tube or ventilator to keep you alive if you slipped into a permanent coma? Is palliative care an option? When is it time to call it quits?

And can you pass the potatoes, please?

"Increasingly, we've heard of efforts just like this. Conversations are happening nationwide through a variety of channels," says Ashley Carson Cottingham, director of policy and advocacy for the nonprofit Compassion & Choices, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group.

"Boomers who are a part of the caregiving for their parents are identifying situations that they don't want at their end of life," she says. "They constitute a powerful wave of change that will make their end-of-life situation different and better."

Carole Fisher, 55, of Las Vegas, hosted one such dinner party. She invited 17 relatives and friends, passed around adhesive mustaches, and initiated the discussion of dying as everyone munched on pizza with a furry upper lip. "It lightened the mood," says Fisher, who's no stranger to these issues. She's president and CEO of Nathan Adelson Hospice in Nevada. And even she found the table talk awkward at times.

"Our society doesn't like to talk about death," she says. "But someone has to take a risk and start the conversation."

Learn more about End of Life Care in AARP's Caregiving Resource Center

A growing number of online resources have popped up to get adults talking in a relaxed atmosphere centered on an inviting meal. One site, Death Over Dinner, offers directions on how to moderate these dinners and suggests conversational prompts to get the discussions flowing. They even provide language to use for dinner invitations.

The Death Cafe website helps people organize and set up gatherings at coffee shops throughout the United States. The website says the "social movement" is popular in other countries as well.

Perhaps more than any other generation, boomers have a particular aversion to growing older. The generation that fueled the sexual revolution has also transformed just about every stage of life, including reinventing retirement. Now, as boomers watch their parents, and in some cases their friends, pass away, they're turning their attention to redefining death.

"We want our dying experience to be personalized rather than rote," says Lynne Lancaster, coauthor of the book When Generations Collide. "Boomers want to feel like we're deciding these things. Before, doctors told us what to do and that's what we did. Now it's much more about discussion, options and choices."

Next page: What do experts suggest regarding financial matters? »

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