Talking About End-of-Life Care: A Q&A with Catherine Baase

Dow Chemical helps its employees talk to their families about end-of-life care.

By Joan Mooney Oct 23, 2014
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1114-Cover.gifWhen Catherine Baase, M.D., global director of health services for Dow Chemical Co., heard about The Conversation Project from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ellen Goodman, she was intrigued. Goodman started the program in 2010 to encourage people to talk to family members about their wishes for end-of-life care. During her own mother’s chronic illness, Baase and her sister, a nurse, organized regular conference calls with their brothers and talked to their mother directly about her preferences. So Baase was well aware of the need for such difficult conversations. Two years after she first talked to Goodman, Baase has helped make the program part of the culture at Dow.

What’s the objective of The Conversation Project?

The goal is to encourage people to have the important conversation—ongoing conversations, actually—with their loved ones about their wishes concerning the end of life. In our society, we don’t seem to be very good at that, so we want to facilitate the process. So many people seem to be in crisis mode during this period, or the end-of-life experience isn’t as comfortable as it could be, either for those receiving care or their family members.

Why is this program important to you?

As a physician, I have seen people struggle; they don’t seem to know how to prepare for this important stage of life, and they simply put off dealing with it. A lot of organizations have identified this as a very real gap, but it’s not an easy thing to encourage people to do.

What should people talk about?

This is not about prescribing any right answers. It’s about people sharing what their wishes are, what is important to them. It’s not just about selecting a specific location where they wish to spend their final days, like a hospital or at home, although that is one factor. It might be important to them to be with family or have some autonomy. People can’t always know what will happen, but they can share their general preferences, personal values and priorities.

How has The Conversation Project helped Dow?

At Dow, we recognize that many employees and retirees balance caring for a parent or loved one with their own work demands. That’s a situation that can create great stress and distraction, and even threaten one’s own health. Approximately half of Dow’s workforce is of the age where caring for aging parents and loved ones is a real possibility. By providing resources like the Conversation Starter Kit and How to Talk to Your Doctor[brief guides from The Conversation Project], companies can help employees, retirees and their family members have those important conversations ahead of time.

What’s the next step at Dow?

We are really just getting started. We created a video about The Conversation Project that has been shared on our intranet, and we have brochures we give out in our health clinics. We’re in the process of training our health service counselors and nursing staff to be more deeply informed about this issue, and we have shared the information with some local health care providers. We plan to develop conversation groups, where people will be invited to come together and talk about their own experiences and practice discussing end-of-life issues. We anticipate having retirees work with employees in role-play exercises.

What has been the reaction of Dow employees?

We’ve had a lot of positive reactions. People have said, “If only I had known earlier, this would have been so helpful.” Others said, “This is the perfect tool. I’m going to share this with my children.” I’ve used it myself; I went through the conversation starter toolkit with my husband.

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