Margie Jenkins apologizes for being slow to respond to a recent email, saying she has just returned from a cruise to celebrate her 90th birthday. Jenkins believes in living the good life, but for her, this also means planning for the good death. Like a lot of us, her views were shaped by her family experiences.
When her aging father could no longer live independently in his home, she recalls, he was despondent about leaving behind a lifetime of memories and going to an institution that could accommodate few of his possessions. Jenkins, a Houston psychotherapist, recognized that her dad was engaged in a difficult, but natural, grieving process. Her therapy for her father included placing a tape recorder on the kitchen table and letting her dad say goodbye to his home.
"We just walked through the house, and he talked about all the things in the house – what they meant to him and who in the family he wanted to have them," she recalls. "Later on, after he had moved out, he said to me, 'That was a real gift to me. Thank you.'"
That memory stayed with Jenkins, who has spent decades on a personal crusade to bring plans for dying into the conversations people have with their spouses and family members. Other groups, like The Conversation Project, have similar goals.
"One group of people that I saw are people who were dying, from the ages of 9 to 90," Jenkins says. "They didn't know anything about how to prepare for life's ending. I decided that I needed to help these people. I started giving seminars with my husband. People kept telling us that no one would attend these seminars, that no one wanted to talk about this, but the seminars were very well-attended."
Her book, released a few years ago, "You Only Die Once," emerged from these speaking engagements, as did a later volume, "My Personal Planner." "People said we needed a video, so we did one of those, too," she says. It's called 'Don't Slam the Door on Your Way Out.'"
"We plan for weddings, we plan for the birth of a baby, we plan for vacations, we plan for everything," Jenkins says. "We think you should plan for the end of your life, too. There are just things that we think that you should think about doing, and many of them you can do now. We think people should put them into a file, give it a name and tell their family what they're doing."
Her experiences with her father show up under "Stages of Grief" in her own recommended list of items that should be included in an end-of-life planning folder. Jenkins took that experience a step further with her four children, inviting them to walk through her home in separate visits and make a list of the family possessions they wanted. "They asked us all sorts of questions about where things came from," she says, "and then they made a list of the 10 best things that they wanted. We can give those things now if we don't need them."
Jenkins has developed a list of more than 40 items she recommends people include in their planning folders. Most of the entries are factual – copies of key documents, instructions about who to contact, wishes about what to do with various possessions and more. Here's that list:
Advanced directives; attorney; bank accounts; benefits; birth certificate; bonds/securities; brokerage accounts; burial information; CPA; cars/vehicles; contracts; divorce papers; financial statements; funeral/cemetery information; hospice; insurance policies; inventory of belongings; loans; long-term care information; marriage license; medical crisis information; memorial/funeral service; military papers; mortgages; obituary; passwords (computers, etc.); pensions; people to notify; real estate titles and deeds; safe deposit box(s); Social Security/Medicare information; tax returns (past four years); when death occurs, what to do; your will.
There are other entries that are not so obvious:
Bodacious living ideas. Talk about how you want to live the rest of your life. "We try to have fun with this subject," Jenkins says. "I think we should plan for life's ending like we plan for life's beginning, and then live bodaciously for as long as you can."
Cherished possessions. What are they and what do you want done with them?
Going-away-party reception. "A lot of people say to me, 'What I think I want is a big party when I die.' So I suggest that they should pay for it and set aside the money before they die. Other people have talked about making a video before they die. This should be a celebration of life," Jenkins says.
Instant action folder. Jenkins recommends creating an emergency folder that contains all the information someone would need to quickly react to your death or to a serious health event.
My support circle. Who's in it, what's their contact information and what are your wishes for communicating with them if you are seriously ill and after you die?
Stages of grief. "I include six stages of grief in my book," Jenkins says. "It's important that we know that the stages of grief are a normal process, or as normal as anything can be. We have to reach for a new normalcy here because nothing is normal after a death."
"10 Best Things" list. The things that Jenkins's children said they wanted. It could include other family members and friends as well.
Things I want to do before I die. Make a bucket list of things you want to do.
Jenkins says she thinks people are becoming more willing to openly discuss death, but that attitude change is coming "slowly, very slowly."
Jenkins is also working to create six videos that would comprise an online course covering the materials in her work. "We are now 90 years old and slowing down a little," she says, "so this course allows the important message of my books to continue to motivate people to live bodaciously as long as they can and plan to finish well – without our traveling around the country giving presentations and schlepping books through airports!"