Talking about end-of-life wishes

Jung Kwak

Jung Kwak studies how we make – and avoid making – end-of-life decisions. Photo by Peter Jakubowski

Have you discussed your end-of-life wishes with your family or friends? Do you know the many benefits of doing so – for you, your spouse and your children?

“We each need to consider putting the subject of dying, and our wishes about our own end-of-life care, on the table for discussion,” says Jung Kwak, assistant professor of social work. “It’s a difficult topic to initiate. But these conversations are valuable. They can decrease the burden and stress on your eventual caregiver and ensure someone else will advocate for you to receive care consistent with
your values.”

If you’re the listening party, she adds, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the other person. “It can surprise you,” she says.

This year, Kwak collaborated on the documentary “Consider the Conversation, A Documentary on a Taboo Subject,” which spotlights how ill-prepared Americans are in making end-of-life decisions. The documentary, which began airing on PBS in June 2011, was co-produced by UWM Letters & Science alumnus Mike Bernhagen (’91 MA Communication), director of Rainbow Hospice Care in Jefferson, Wis.

Kwak studies decisional conflicts at the end of life and the need to have surrogates for persons with dementia. Because of her promising research in this area, she was named in 2010 as one of six Hartford Geriatric Social Work Faculty Scholars. Her research is funded by the Parkinson’s Research Institute and the Hartford Foundation.

Kwak researches factors that impede and those that help a caregiver make such decisions. Spouses, she says, feel more confident to make such decisions; children less confident and more conflicted. In addition, the state of relationships plays a role. “Generally, the more family conflict, the less able people are to make end-of-life decisions,” she says.

“At some point, we might become the caregiver of someone we love and care about. It comes with a lot of responsibility, but most people are not prepared,” Kwak says.

A caregiver’s job can be made easier by three factors, she says: understanding health and medical information, knowing the dying person’s values and being supported by friends and family.

Are there rights and wrongs in making end-of-life decisions? Kwak thinks not. “We’re talking about life and death,” she says. “I’m not sure there is a right way to live or to die.”