The Minimalist Approach to the End of Life

Learn how a new lifestyle trend can revolutionize the way we approach our last days.

In recent years the minimalist lifestyle has been trending throughout the United States, particularly among the millennial generation. Unlike their parents who sought after material goods and wealth as part of “living the dream,” many younger people are choosing to live a simple lifestyle with fewer possessions, tiny homes, and less waste and consumption.

According to author Joshua Becker: “Minimalism slows down life and frees us from this modern hysteria to live faster. It finds freedom to disengage. It seeks to keep only the essentials. It seeks to remove the frivolous and keep the significant. And in doing so, it values the intentional endeavors that add value to life.”

While minimalism provides a more relaxed and meaningful way of life to its youthful followers, this movement could also be an answer to today’s current healthcare crisis surrounding the end of life. With an emphasis on simplicity and intentionality, the guiding principles of minimalism provide a framework for changing our approach to the later years of life and the process of dying and death. Here are some of those principles and how they might be applied to decision-making at the end of life:

Less is more

The current default mentality of our healthcare system seems to be “if some is good, then more is better.” A patient arriving in an emergency room anywhere in the country in the midst of a cardiac arrest will receive full-bore, defibrillated, intubated, catheterized, crash-cart care unless an advance directive and/or a healthcare proxy is available in the moment to refuse that care. And a cancer patient is likely to be offered treatment up until the last breath is taken, even when there has been no improvement from that treatment.

In this medical system more care will almost always be offered and carried out unless patients and their representatives are able to say “no” to that care. The patient’s best defense is to adopt the “less is more” mindset of minimalism and recognize that in many situations more care creates more side effects, more expense, more suffering, and more stress on patient and family.

Opting for less care can create space and time for enjoying moments with loved ones, contemplating what really matters in life and savoring the small pleasures that bring joy and meaning to existence. Less care can mean more quality of life if you approach it with intentionality and informed decision-making.

To be a “minimalist healthcare consumer” you must have an advance directive that spells out your wish for less rather than more care. You must communicate this desire to your medical providers, your healthcare proxy and your loved ones.

But you also have to address your fear of suffering, aging, illness and death, because those fears can drive you to choose more care when faced with a crisis. Complete your paperwork but also do your inner work to confront your deep-seated and normal anxieties about the end of life so that you will be ready to face the natural passage from life to death. You should also practice the “less is more” mindset during your later years by making careful decisions about the non-emergent healthcare you receive from your provider during routine office visits.

Eliminate the non-essential

Throughout your later years as you seek out medical care keep asking: “Is this essential?” Question every treatment or diagnostic test that is recommended to you and demand to know why it is necessary, how it might benefit you, and what could happen if you don’t do it. Don’t accept a procedure or test until you have had time to do your own research or get a second opinion. Some standard recommendations that have been accepted in the past such as the annual physical exam and routine screening procedures are now being questioned as they have been shown to result in over-diagnosis and excessive treatment.

If you take prescription medications ask if they are still necessary and if you can systematically discontinue some of them to see if they are helping or worsening your symptoms. Studies show that seniors who take multiple medications are more likely to experience negative side effects and even unnecessary death from the combination of potent drugs.

Find a primary care medical provider who agrees with your “less is more” philosophy and will help you create a sensible and simple plan for managing your healthcare needs. Don’t seek out specialty care unless your primary care provider says it is necessary. You have a right to say “no” to medical care and to find a practitioner who supports your right.

Individualism

While minimalism may be a trendy lifestyle with many people following the same guidelines, its principles encourage each person to find their own path to simplicity. As you begin to advocate for your individual philosophy of less medical care in later life it’s important to know yourself and seek out what is best for you.

Spend time thinking about the experiences of aging and dying that you may have witnessed with loved ones in the past. What would you like to be different in your end of life? How can you create a better path for yourself that reflects your unique wishes and desires?

For example, if you are a solitary person and prefer to live alone for as long possible then you will need family or community support to make sure you can safely stay in your own home as you age. If you enjoy social interactions with others you might choose to be in a senior living center in the future and you will need to provide for that option financially.

Get organized

One hallmark of minimalism is “keeping everything in its place.” This principle applies especially to your plans and paperwork for the end of life. Complete your estate plan, will, and advance directives and make sure those documents have been shared with the appropriate professionals and loved ones.

Decide what type of “less is more” funeral and burial or cremation you would like to have, perhaps a simple home funeral and green burial, and put those preferences in writing too. Keep your paperwork organized and accessible, including insurance forms, birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, titles, deeds, banking and investment information, online accounts and passwords, and medical records.

Live in the moment

A benefit of the minimalist approach is the ability to live lightly and with fewer burdens from the past and worries about the future. When you can live more fully in the present moment you are free to take in the small joys and pleasures that are available to you, like the beauty of a sunset, a bird singing outside your window, or the comforting aroma of dinner cooking on the stove.

However, living in the present moment takes work. You have to consciously let go of the past by giving away things you no longer need and making room for a new way of life. This applies to medical care at the end of life too—perhaps you will decide to discontinue treatments or procedures that have been part of your routine for a long time. Or you might part ways with a medical provider who doesn’t support your choice of a minimalist approach to the end of life.

As part of the medically minimalist lifestyle you will need to adjust to the normal changes of aging and learn to embrace them rather than seeking a medical solution to every ache and pain. Find modalities such as yoga, massage, relaxation, and imagery that can keep you comfortable without taking additional drugs. You may find that you receive positive “side benefits” from these practices rather than the negative side effects of many medications.

Prioritize what really matters to you

As Joshua Becker stated above, minimalism focuses on letting go of what is superficial and keeping those things in life that are significant. You have to determine what really matters to you in order to choose the components of your new less-is-more lifestyle.

This prioritization applies particularly to the non-tangible things like your relationships with loved ones and the time you spend with them. Would you prefer to stay in the community where you have lived for many years? Or would you consider moving to be closer to family as you age? These choices will play an important role as you let go of the complexities of the past and move toward a simpler way of life in the future.

No matter how old you are it’s never too early to start thinking about what is most important to you in life and making those things a priority. When you give your time and energy to the deeper and more significant aspects of life you will find it much easier to let go of all the things that don’t really matter to you.

Find Your Purpose

The key to successfully maintaining a minimalist lifestyle is recognizing that life has a greater purpose than just the accumulation of material possessions. When you know your own purpose you can make choices that support that purpose rather than interfere with it.

The healthcare decisions you make for yourself are important because your time, energy and finances can potentially be drained in later life if you pursue unlimited medical interventions in a quest to reverse aging and prevent death at all costs. The minimalist approach reminds us that the purpose of life is not to live as long as possible, regardless of the circumstances, but to live a life of meaning and quality for as many days as we can. Again, the emphasis is on the meaning and quality of life rather than on the quantity; another example of “less is more.”

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While minimalism as a lifestyle may not suit everyone, it is certainly worthwhile to apply some of these minimalist principles to the later years of life as we contemplate how to make the most of our last days. As a general rule if we focus on what is simple and has the greatest meaning for us we will be guided to make wise choices for the end of life that reduce stress, wastefulness and suffering from unwanted medical care.

You can start your minimalist approach right now no matter what situation exists for you right now. Think of one thing in your life that you no longer need and let go of it today; then repeat that process each day from now on. The more you practice living simply the easier it becomes as you free yourself from old burdens. Perhaps when you reach the end of your days you will arrive unencumbered, free to move on through the final passage with lightness and ease—that at least is the hope for all of us.

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6 Mystical Teachings the Whole World Needs Right Now

If it seems like the entire planet has gone slightly mad over the past few months, you are not alone in that perception. In fact, a Pew Research study has shown that intolerance has been increasing around the world for the past decade, including “crimes, malicious acts and violence motivated by religious hatred or bias.”

What’s going on here? Shouldn’t our religions be teaching us to behave in a more positive and “godlike” manner rather than fostering hatred? The problem seems to lie less in religion itself and more with the level of consciousness of individuals who practice various religions. Rigid and narrow ways of thinking are more likely to lead to intolerant practices than inclusive and flexible states of mind.

However, throughout history every religion has yielded mystical teachers who have brought messages to mankind that transcend the consciousness of the masses, such as Abraham, Christ, Buddha, Rumi, Mohammed, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Krishna, among others. These teachers who represent different religions have each taught some common principles that transcend every religion and show us how to live in peace in a diverse world.

1. There is One God

There is One Creative Force in the Universe, from which everything, both seen and unseen, derives. That same One God is viewed differently by each of us through our own individual lens, which may have been shaped by religion, family, society, education, life experiences, or other factors. A small and narrow lens leads to a limited and partial view of God, including blindness to the fact that every other person has been created by that same God; and every other religion worships the same God. A limited view of God through a tiny lens leads to judgment and bias toward others who seem to be different from and inferior to us.

You can expand your own “lens” by learning about people who differ from you, studying mystical teachings, and using your own life experiences to guide you to a new way of seeing. Think of someone you feel judgmental toward and then list all of the things that you actually have in common with that person.

2. God is Love

The Creative Force of God is actually love made visible. Everything in existence derives from love and thrives on love. But a narrow lens may make it difficult to perceive love as a creative force and to manifest love in your own life. Therefore your actions will be driven by the greed and fear of lower consciousness if you cannot take the higher path and be guided by love.

Spend time each day bringing love into your life and sharing it with others. Meditate or pray with the thought that love constantly pours into your heart from the Creator, only to overflow to the people around you.

3. All is One

We are One with every other aspect of creation, including every other human being. While our narrow lens may reveal to us only the differences that separate us from others, we share with every creature the truth that we have been spun into existence from the breath of God and also that our physical form will one day dissolve back into the Divine Source of creativity. In other words, each of us has been born into physical existence and each of us will also die one day. That fact is responsible for the greatest common bond between all living things and means that our primary struggle in this life is shared with every other being.

Death is the great “unifier” of the masses—the one Truth with which we all must wrestle. Think about your relationship with mortality and recognize that all life is precious because it is fleeting.

4. What is in One is in the Whole

Because we are connected with every other living thing in existence, what we do to one aspect of creation we do to all of creation, including ourselves. If you harm another person, you harm yourself and the entire planet. If you heal another with love, you bring healing to all of life. Every word, every thought, every action is significant and should come from positive intention, that is, from love. Only love sustains and nourishes life for the good of the Whole.

Do one thing “for the good of the Whole” every day. Think of a simple positive act that can make a difference for someone else.

5. Change comes from within

To change what is outside of us we must first change what is inside of us. In fact, you are powerless to change the world around you to fit your mind’s concept of “how things should be.” You can only change yourself, which requires spending your lifetime looking within and understanding the wounds you carry. If you want to rid the world of darkness, you must look into your own darkness first. Shine the light of love on the pain you hold: the fear, anger, shame and greed that have been hidden within. Use your light to expose your own shortcomings rather than looking for what’s wrong with others. What you heal within you will be healed in all of creation.

Journal about the wounds that hide in your Shadow. How can you love the parts of yourself that are in pain?

6. Nothing lasts, everything changes … except love

If you think you can keep life the way it is right now or go back to “the way things used to be,” you are in error. Everything in this universe changes from moment to moment and that is a fact you must embrace. If you resist change within yourself you will waste your vital Life Force on a task that leads nowhere. Learn to ride the waves of change and focus on the process rather than the outcome, for you cannot control the future.

Since love, as the Divine Creator of all, is the only constant that does not change, bring love always to every moment. Let love guide you as you work on changing your own inner landscape. Love is the light you need to illuminate your painful wounds and also to heal them. Allow love into your awareness and let it be your tool for change as you work to change yourself and thereby change the world.

Contemplate where and how you are resisting change in your life. Write about what might help you let go and allow change to unfold in its own way.

The current dire state of human relationships on this planet might be a great opportunity for evolution and growth to higher consciousness to occur. If you want to make a difference in the world, work on your own consciousness—grow and evolve within—in order to change things for the better. This is the where our hope for the planet resides!

 

About the Author:

 Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the host of End-of-Life University Interview Series and author of “The Tao of Death” and the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying” Connect with her at karenwyattmd.com, on Facebook at fb.com/WhatReallyMattersWithKarenWyatt and on Twitter @spiritualmd.

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