In January of 2018 Loretta Downs, M.A. gerontology, and I co-founded Death Café Ajijic aka Café Mortality Ajijic at Lake Chapala, Mexico.
The first café started the next month with the intention of encouraging the mostly retired community to talk about and prepare for end-of-life, not only to save loved ones and neighbors a lot of grief and time, but to provide a space to talk out feelings, hopefully leading to more well-being.
Because we travel a lot, we invited other health professionals in the community to join as volunteer hosts. We have been fortunate. There is now a rotating team to handle responsibilities for the all-volunteer events starting in 2019. We continue to do our best to improve the experience for attendees. One of the best ways for me to learn is to experience other Death Cafes.
For those of you unfamiliar with Death Cafes, they have been in existence since 2011 and are now in 63 countries of the world. See www.DeathCafe.com for a café near you.
I was recently in Santa Barbara, CA, originally a Spanish mission post, to attend the Santa Barbara Death Café.
It was a pleasure to enter the donated venue at 11 E. Carrillo Street, the Hill-Carrillo Adobe. Beautiful place built in 1825. It is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
There are three dedicated hostesses in Santa Barbara. One of them provides her grandmother’s tea cups and linen. Others bring cake or cookies. Attendees offer donations to defray expenses.
One of the surprises for me was that Santa Barbara Death Cafe provides a mobile library. They bring books in a large carton each month for participants to check out!! I love this idea!!
Participants in Santa Barbara are all adults, mostly older adults. In a group of about 20, there were two men, one a recent widower. We introduced ourselves to each other at a long, rectangular table, one by one, sharing briefly what brought us to the café.
We dispersed after the introductions to talk in groups of three, four, or more. It was organic, and attendees were encouraged to move to another group if they so desired. I see how attendees return over and over again. The hostesses and environment feel cozy and safe.
Thank you Death Café Santa Barbara and Center for Successful Aging for your hospitality!!!
I also attended an intimate Death Café in Santa Monica a few days prior to the Santa Barbara Café. It was hosted by a lovely woman at her office space. She is a psychologist, grief counselor. death doula, and drama therapist from Pasadena. There were five of us all together. The counselor led by asking why each came, and the other three participants, each in their 30’s, were off and running, lively and engaged from the start. Time went by quickly. This multi-talented lady also offers a Death Goes to the Movies night. Recently she screened a documentary about a psychiatrist/musician preparing for his green burial.
Both cafes in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica were unique, rewarding experiences. You may find the next dates for these Death Cafes or others near you at http://www.DeathCafe.com. If you do not find one, perhaps you may have a desire to start one.
Please see the following links for articles about two of the cafes in Ajijic if you are interested – how we organized, and how attendees shared experiences at the end.
For the last few years I have had the good fortune to visit palliative care and hospice entities in California as well as in six states of Mexico with the objective of learning more about what works, what’s missing, and what might work in Mexico for years to come. There are challenges based on cultural differences, but all is possible.
I am comparing various models – hospitals and facilities (medical), in-home community outreach (medical and/or volunteer), all volunteer, government, non-profit, and for profit.
Hospice of San Luis Obispo County (HSLO) has been on my radar for some time because it is a successful, locally based non-profit volunteer hospice that has sustained itself for 41 years!! For those of you who are familiar with the operations of non-profits, this is an extraordinary achievement.
Aside from serving the public, HSLO educates and trains locals and others as end-of-life doulas (companions). They host Death Cafes and much more.
The sustainability is based on more than dedication and love – mainly inventive ways to engage the public, an especially hard task in a difficult economy.
I am so pleased I was finally able to visit HSLO. I am indebted to the Executive Director and the Director of Volunteers, the few paid staff, for a warm, meaningful, memorable exchange.
HSLO is one of six hospice services in a county with a population of around 284,000. It is the only volunteer in-home hospice supported by the generous energy of over 200 volunteers. They serve approximately 5,000 persons per year.
Any county resident with life-limiting illness is served through “in-home respite care, emotional, spiritual, practical and non-medical support, and grief counseling support (group and individual).”
Other services are education about dying and death for professionals, caregivers and the community, doula programs, Death Cafes, Threshold Choirs, and Pet Peace of Mind groups.
From my perspective their outreach and activities place HSLO in the vanguard of the “death care and the death positive” movement that is sweeping North America and beyond. It is exhausting but rewarding work.
Additional treat: I was blessed to attend HSLO’s annual Light Up A Lifecandlelight vigil held at the San LuisObispo Mission on a nippy, rainy evening. Names of those who have passed were read out loud during the hour service that included a choir. Later we carried candles outside for readings and prayers.
Anyone may pay a fee (fundraising) to have the name or names of loved ones read at Light Up A Life. This lovely event is repeated during one week in December in different cities of the county.
HSLO was created in 1977 and has an excellent reputation through word-of-mouth.
Services are provided without charge; no insurance company is billed.
HSLO relies on community donations, fundraising events, grants, doula training fees, and the time of its over 200 volunteers.
Hospice of San Luis Obispo County is a remarkable operation. So much goodwill!! A great gift to the community.
The home which serves as office was bequeathed to HSLO by Dorothy D. Rupe; it bears her name.
1304 Pacific Street, San Luis Obispo,CA 93401 tel. (805)544-2266
In the course of one week of August 2018 a fellowship, a Death Cafe, and a talk group at Lake Chapala, Mexico hosted events related to considerations for end-of-life.
These events, intentionally or not, are part of the growing Death Positive movement around the world – places to share, plan, or think about what we want; to consider how we foresee our own passing; and to learn from others who openly share their experiences.
Wikipedia’s explanation of Death Positive:
“The death positive movement is a social and philosophical movement that encourages people to speak openly about death, dying, and corpses. The movement seeks to eliminate silence around death-related topics, decrease anxiety surrounding death, and encourages more diversity in end-of-life care options available to the public.”
Retiree ex-pats ages 50+ from Canada, Germany, the U.S., and the UK gathered at three different venues to hear or participate in interesting, lively, or poignant discussions about mortality.
Lake Chapala Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
On a sunny lakeside morning, the fellowship hosted an inspirational, memorable service devoted to End-of-Life.
Sandy Wallin was the service leader. The sermon, “What I Learned from Charlie,” was delivered by Lew Crippen. Hymns related to transitions – I’ll Fly Away ( performed on a recording by the Humbard family), plus One More Step, and Spirit of Life. The postlude was Handel’s The Trumpet Shall Sound.
Crippen’s sharing was an endearing, sometimes funny, but definitely moving tale about how witnessing the dying of his beloved rescue cat taught him more about love and life.
Service poetry included Mending Walls by Robert Frost, and the surprisingly amusing Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death (Roger McGough), beautifully read by Wallin.
Note: The tenets of the Universalist Unitarians have much in common with palliative care and hospice – “to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” plus “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”
A group of American, Canadian, and German retirees and others recently gathered for the third Café Mortality Ajijic in Mexico August 2018. Thirty persons sat in an engaged way at six round tables and one rectangle table (added at the last minute) at Min Wah Restaurant. Conversation was uncommonly lively. Participants included a hospice chaplain (a new café volunteer), a hospice nurse, a hospice volunteer (a new café volunteer), three psychologists, a psychiatrist, one professor, one journalist, and others.
Currently, there are three co-hosts sharing the duties – Debi Buckland, Wendy Jane Carrel, and Loretta Downs, each with 20+ years devoted to some or all aspects of end-of-life care, planning, and transitions. Each Cafe Mortality is introduced by one of the hosts. The August café was heralded by Loretta Downs who flew in from Chicago to lead.
In the last few minutes, a representative from each table stood up to share with attendees interests and concerns discussed – how to die peacefully at home in Mexico, how to take one’s life legally in Mexico, how to die on your own terms in Mexico (have your wishes honored), and what happens in the afterlife.
These all-volunteer social gatherings which discuss death and dying respectfully and informally (no agenda) are now held in 52 countries. See http://deathcafe.com/
A review of the first Death Café Ajijic, held in February 2018, may be found at the following link:
The next Cafe Mortality is scheduled for October 9, 2018. Please RSVP to email@example.com if you wish to attend. Note: the venue may change.
Open Circle Ajijic
David Acuff, PhD, talk show host, and author of 15 books, spoke to over 300 attendees at Open Circle Ajijic on Creation of the Afterlife: Perspectives of Different Cultures. He brought forth views from Native Americans, Australian aborigines, Judeo-Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus about what happens when we die. He interspersed his presentation with audience breaks asking those present to find a partner to ask questions with such as…Where are we going after our demise? As at Café Mortality, the audience was fully engaged with the subject, voices were animated and lively.
In closing, Acuff offered a new view of afterlife suggested from findings at tombs of the Nazca mummies in Peru. Perhaps, he shared, there is evidence we are not alone in the world. According to DNA research in the spring of this year, mummies from 300 A.D. and 1400 A.D. had three fingers on each hand and were not homo sapiens.
Maybe we do go somewhere else, time travel, or reincarnate… all food for thought.
Award-winning author, podcast host, and hospice physician Karen Wyatt connects healthcare professionals and the public with information about healing options for the dying through End of Life University, which she founded in 2013.
For three years+ I have been dedicated to a palliative care/hospice mission for Mexico. Even though I am back and forth to California, I am continually on the look-out for how care and support for patients and families is being provided on a national and global basis.
What interests me are differences place to place as they relate to education for providers, physicians, patients, and families – what’s missing, what’s working, what options and perceptions about dying are offered.
This is where Colorado-based hospice physician and thought leader Karen Wyatt comes in. She brings my quest to my computer in an open and engaging way through her END OF LIFE UNIVERSITY web site podcasts. Colleagues share experiences, feelings, information and wisdom about how they are advancing best practices for end-of-life.
Dr. Wyatt’s approach to death and dying is holistic, with a special emphasis on sacred and spiritual aspects of our transitions.
The goal of her effort is a national dialogue for “creative healing… opening the heart of Western medicine.” The podcasts, connections, and resources are a welcome gift not only for healthcare professionals but the public as well. See www.EOLUniversity.com.
In conjunction with the university, Dr. Wyatt launched an on-line book club in January 2018, The Year of Reading Dangerously, where she introduces one book per month about an aspect of end-of-life, and, interviews the book’s authors live on-line. Participants type in questions on-line or ask via the phone line they are listening on.
Interview with Dr. Wyatt
Please share with us about your personal history, and, what led to your work in end-of-life care.
I trained to be a family doctor. I had no knowledge of death and dying or hospice.
Three years after my residency, my father died by suicide. His sudden death upended my world. I felt guilty. I had training in psychiatry and couldn’t save my dad. I floundered for a long, long time trying to get through the grief. Three years after his death, I still felt very lost. I was wondering if I would ever smile or feel joy again. Suddenly a voice said, “call hospice.” It was my voice, and I have no idea where the message came from.
I didn’t even know if there was a hospice in the Utah community I lived in. I searched “hospice” and found one. I called and asked if they needed a volunteer. When they discovered I am a doctor they enthusiastically exclaimed “oh my goodness!” The Hospice Director, stunned, continued to ask “what made you call us now?” I just had an inspiration, I replied. The Director continued, “Our medical director resigned 30 minutes ago and now you’ve called us.” Just like that I became a hospice medical director. I was guided to this place, and I knew it for sure when I met the team.
What inspired the creation of End-of-Life University? What led you to gather fellow end-of-life colleagues to share what they know with each other and the public?
Years in hospice have brought me profound spiritual experiences. I have learned many lessons about how to live my own life. Hospice has helped me live a life of appreciation and that brought me to the decision to write a book. Many patients had asked if I could tell their stories one day. I made a promise to do so.
Writing a book was a long process and is what probably inspired the eventual creation of EOL University. I began the book in 1999 and finished in 2010. I felt I must live the lessons of the book in order for it to be complete. The book was published in 2012 and it was then I realized for the first time that the population, in general, was resistant to talking about death and dying. It seemed people were not ready or open; it was the last thing they wanted to talk about. It was then I knew I wished to do something to change this, something different needed to happen.
Brainstorming led to the question, what else may I be involved with other than a blog or writing? (At the time, Wyatt was posting occasional articles on Huffington Post and in local newspapers). The year was 2013 and I began listening to on-line interviews on other subjects and realized no one was doing this on-line for death and dying. I started the research to find people to interview. It was fun, I loved it (and still do). I was learning so much and wished to keep it going. That was five years ago. I am grateful to the Internet and social media as networks for good.
What response did you receive when you first began End-of-Life University?
End-of-Life University is always a work-in-progress, unfolding. In the beginning I felt no one was listening to the interviews, and that no one cared. The interest grew slowly over time. I learned consistency is important, showing up regularly. I followed the top web sites in Google search. I recognized ranking makes a difference. Over the years EOL University has gone from 200 to 4,000 subscribers. There is a lot of patience on my part.
I knew I was in it for the long haul, and it was the right thing to do whether I received validation for it or not. In the last couple years, whenever I’ve been at a conference, I kept meeting people who have been listening to the podcasts. Some would say, “every week, your interviews got me through two terrible years when my mother died, or “I’m interested in working in end of life because of your podcasts.” One of most important things I learned is that your heart tells you to continue, even if there are signs showing otherwise. You don’t know the impact you are making, but someday you may find out. Always trust your heart.
How did the concept of creating the book club with its engaging title, the Year of Reading Dangerously, take hold?
I felt it would be important. There are so many books, and books are another wonderful way people can learn about death and dying. The goal is to reach people. The concept of reading and discussing a different book each month had been with me for a while. So late one night I posted the book club on Facebook to see if there might be any interest. I was imagining maybe 20 persons might respond, and if so, that would be great. Well 150 had signed up! Now over 1,000 have signed up. It’s never too late to join. The response has been so positive I am thinking about continuing the book club in 2019.
What I like most about the club are diverse points of view, completely different voices with unique perspectives discussing end-of-life. I owned some of the books and hadn’t read them yet. Some of the authors I had invited to talk about their books suggested others. Katy Butler, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, suggested Megory Anderson’s book Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life. Ken Wilbur is a friend and I felt his story Grace and Grit would be compelling.
I find a lot of our listeners are going through their own personal struggles related to death and dying. It seems energetically powerful and perhaps healing if people around the world are reading the same books. There is something enormously attractive about bringing people a shared body of useful knowledge.
Dr. Wyatt has retired from her medical practice. Her focus is end-of-life education. She enjoys speaking to audiences across the U.S. and has discovered that “threads” connecting those who do this work remain strong. “Death has called us in and somehow we end up sharing our experiences with others,” she says.
The “death positive” movement has taken off in recent years. Dr. Wyatt’s End-of-Life University and her podcasts seem to be at the right place at the right time.
It was almost 20 years ago when Bill Moyers’ PBS series ON OUR OWN TERMS showed that those of us who tend to the dying wish “to assure patients they can have a ‘good death’ one that fits them, their families, and their culture.” This is Dr. Wyatt’s mission as well. More people are now receiving the message.
Thought: What do you wish for your end-of-life?
Links where you can learn more or support the non-profit, all volunteer End-of-Life University: