It's not every day that a doctor at a leading academic medical center recruits strangers to sit in circles and play games about “the end.” So researcher Dr. Lauren Van Scoy had to get used to skepticism.
“They look at me cross-eyed, like I am absolutely nuts,” says Van Scoy, assistant professor of medicine and humanities at Penn State's Hershey Medical Center. She has been studying whether the card game My Gift of Grace can help people to not only think about death and dying, but plan for it.
For many, just hearing the words “end of life” and “advance planning” are a buzz kill. Even older adults aren't very focused on it: Only about one-third have an advance directive expressing their wishes for end-of-life care, according to estimates.
Last week during the American Thoracic Society conference in Denver, Van Scoy presented findings from two small studies that showed the game succeeded in getting families, complete strangers and even some “frat boy types” to think about death in ways that prompted laughter rather than dread.
Seventy-four percent of the participants went on to perform at least one advance-care planning activity within 10 weeks, such as creating an advance directive or living will, or seeking out nursing home information.
The deck of 42 cards contains heavy open-ended questions such as: What do you fear more: experiencing the worst pain of your life or not getting the chance to say goodbye to a loved one? And, what do you want your doc to focus on more, quality or quantity of life?
But the key to success was interspersing lighter queries. For example, what meal would you want on your last day alive? And, what kind of music would you like played at your funeral?
“The funeral question was hilarious,” Van Scoy said. “People came up with playlists, like 'I want the boys choir to sing a version of Michael Jackson's 'I'll Be There' and then switch into a Beyoncé tune.' ”