Handbook for Mortals by Dr. Joanne Lynn

Review by Phyllis Laudano, Staff Writer
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"Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness"
by Dr. Joanne Lynn and Dr. Joan Harrold

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Two generations ago there would have been no need for a guide like Handbook for Mortals to have been written. The subject that this book addresses – the process of dying and death -- was an everyday occurrence, common to all families and communities. Without the modern medical technology available to us today, people usually died at home, in their own beds, surrounded by loved ones who were all too familiar with this inevitable part of life. Death was rarely the drawn out process that it has become today. Generally, people often died at an early age, shortly after an accident or contracting a serious disease.

The process of dying may now take many years and is often fraught with complicated descions that will effect the quality and duration of one’s remaining time. The ill person along with their family and friends are faced with issues that are foreign to the modern family. For most people in our society, the process of dying is not a common experience, leaving us ill equipped to cope with the issues that are addressed in this book.

Handbook for Mortals is an invaluable guide for all of us who inevitably will face the complicated issues surrounding mortality. The authors cover a number of essential topics such as:

  • The decisions each of us will likely need to face along with the choices that will help us make those decisions;
  • Where help can be found;
  • How to achieve a level of physical comfort in the midst of painful symptoms and treatments;
  • The characteristics of specific diseases;
  • The ins and outs of the healthcare system; and
  • The overwhelming emotional impact a serious illness has on the entire family.

Interwoven within the practical information provided by this book are the moving accounts of those facing death as well as the experiences of their loved ones. Their stories provide the reader with insight and inspiration along with examples to follow on how to turn the end of one’s life or that of a loved one into a time of personal growth and reflection. In short, these accounts serve as a model for making peace with a profoundly important process that is rarely discussed or acknowledged in modern culture.

Chapter 17 of this book is a comprehensive, well organized list of resources which may offer the reader additional help during their trying time. The authors also offer guidance on what to do and say when contacting a new resource, along with advice on where to find help right in one’s own "backyard". Under the subtitle Caregiving the reader will find a resource for Alzheimer’s Caregiving Strategies. Under Diseases are listed resources for Alzheimer’s and Other Dementia’s and The Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Centers.

Topics Discussed/ Table of Contents

  1. Living With Serious Illness – learning to accept the limits of life, something that each person will someday have to deal with. Includes a list of "Things To Do When Time May Be Short" and "Words To Try" to help you speak with your ill loved one.
  2. Enduring And Changing – offers ideas on how to deal with the changes that occur in your life caused by illness.
  3. Finding Meaning- an important "job" each of us must do for the end of life.
  4. Helping Family Make Decisions And Give Care- includes advice and personal accounts of families working together and caregiving.
  5. Getting The Help You Need – practical advice on how to use the heath care system to best meet your needs.
  6. Talking With Your Doctor – how to openly talk to your doctor and make the most of each visit.
  7. Controlling Pain – you do not have to be in terrible pain at the end of life, even severe pain can be controlled.
  8. Managing Other Symptoms – different symptoms may cause difficulty at the end of life. Advice on alleviating them.
  9. Learning About Specific Illnesses – characteristics of specific diseases. Discusses dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
  10. Planning Ahead – how planning ahead for the end of life can help you feel more peaceful during your last days.
  11. Forgoing Medical Treatment – discuses artificial life support, ventilators, resuscitation, artificial nutrition, breathing machines. Deciding whether or not to use these treatments.
  12. Hastening Death – some may contemplate suicide as a way to end their pain.
  13. Coping With Events Near Death – practical advice for the loved ones of those near death.
  14. The Dying Of Children – advice and support for parents of a very sick child.
  15. Dying Suddenly – unexpected death causes many difficulties for survivors.
  16. Enduring Loss – suggestions given on how to live through grief and how to find help and support.
  17. Additional Resources – extensive list of books, organizations and websites to help you through your difficult time.

About the Authors

Joanne Lynn, M.D., is Director of the Center to Improve Care of the Dying (http://www.abcd-caring.org) at The George Washington University Medical School. She is an internationally recognized expert in improving care to the terminally ill. Joan Harrold, M.D., is a Fellow at the National Cancer Institute.

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