"I’ve never done this before," says Joyce Kerr, her voice betraying only a slight waver. She is talking with her doctor about dying. A strong and dignified woman in her 60s, Kerr has decided to stop treatment for ovarian cancer and is preparing to leave the hospital for the final time to die at home with her family. Her doctor, a specialist in end-of-life care, reassures her that there is no "right" way to die.
What Kerr seeks—and what studies show most of us desire—is a death free of pain, at home, surrounded by loved ones, receiving support and respect. By these criteria, Kerr does end up with a good death. However, as things stand now in the United States, too many of us and those we love will not be so fortunate (even if we are spared sudden death). Why?
Veteran journalist Bill Moyers takes up this question and offers hope for change in a four-part PBS documentary series, "On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying in America" (premieres September 12; check your local listings). This program gives intimate and gripping glimpses of the final days of Joyce Kerr and others, free of sentimentality or sensationalism. Woven throughout is an accessible primer on the ethical, personal, financial, and bureaucratic struggles that the dying and their families face, as well as examples of innovative efforts to better care for all involved at the end of life.
Episode 1, "Living With Dying," shows several people doing just that. Their stories introduce some of the major challenges to a "good" death: the scarcity of medical training and resources directed toward end of life care, inadequate or nonexistent health insurance, and the common fear or denial of death that postpones needed planning and engagement.