Only one-third of Americans older than 65 have living wills. That’s according to a survey published last year in the journal Health Affairs. Not surprisingly, younger people are even less likely to have made preparations for their death. One woman in Los Angeles has made it her business to help people get their affairs in order.
Every month or so, 49-year-old Amy Pickard hosts a potluck gathering at her apartment.
“They’ve been described as death Tupperware parties,” she explains.
Guests bring food that reminds them of a deceased loved one.
“Pamela brought some coleslaw, because her mom used to make an amazing coleslaw,” Pickard says.
Then, with cocktails in hand, they gather in her cheerful, candlelit living room to get down to work. The hostess and guests first introduce themselves:
“I’ll start. I’m Amy, and I’m going to die,” Pickard says.
“I’m Debbie, and I’m probably going to die,” says guest Debbie Adler.
“Yeah, my name’s Mimi and I’m determined NOT to die,” Mimi Chen, a cancer survivor, announces.
Participants at this party range in age from 40 to 70. Pickard says anyone older than 18 who lives away from home should have this paperwork.
She walks them through a 50-page document she’s created called the “Good to Go” Departure File. Achingly specific details of one’s death are covered. There are obvious preparations, like where you want your belongings to go, and who should make decisions for you if you can’t. And then there are the less obvious questions to answer, such as:
If you’re hospitalized at the end, would you want the TV on?
Where do you keep a list of passwords to devices, bank accounts and social media?
And, what about your “sonic will?” What sounds or music do you want in the background, as you await death?
Pickard learned the necessity for this kind of planning the hard way, back in 2012.
“When my mom died unexpectedly, I had to fly back to Chicago where she lived and take care of all the death duties, and become a detective basically,” she says.
She scrambled in search of a will, all the while the morgue was calling and asking how to dispose of the remains.
“You know, you’re going through this deep cosmic pain and there’s all this information you need that you don’t have answers to.”
Settling her mother’s affairs took Pickard two years. Then, she grappled with her grandmother’s, then her father’s death. All this turned her into an evangelist for advance planning and she started consulting and hosting these parties.
On this night, Darren Callahan and his wife Lisa attended with an eye toward Darren’s mother, whose dementia is quickly advancing.
“A light bulb went off that I should get our house in order,” Darren says. “And, she had a huge list of things that I hadn’t considered for myself.”
Lisa adds, “You want to live your life in a certain way, why wouldn’t you want to have your life end a certain way?”
Despite the obvious benefits to advance planning, and Pickard’s unique, upbeat approach, she’s found not everyone is eager to become, as she calls it, “death positive.”
“You know, I’ve had a lot of people who are superstitious and say, ‘I don’t want to fill out my advance planning, because then I’m going to die.’ I’m like, ‘Have you ever played the lottery, did you win?’ Writing this stuff down isn’t going to make you die!”
Debbie Adler found the whole evening so thought-provoking that she’s planning to invite some friends over for her upcoming 41st birthday to talk about it.
“Celebrate one’s birth while thinking about one’s death,” she says. “That feels … good.”