Roger Kligler loves to walk.
Every day, he takes his five-year-old golden retriever, Bodie, out along the paths near his Falmouth home. It’s one of Kligler’s favorite activities since retiring as a physician. He covers five miles or more a day, and logged about 3,000 miles last year.
“I walk every day, I don’t care what the weather is,” he said. “The only time I’m relatively cautious—and this will be just putting it off—is during wind storms.”
People avoid the topic of death because they think it’s scary and sad. But often, facing and embracing our own mortality could help us live better.
In our series, "Our Mortal Lives: Confronting Death and Dying," we examine how we think about, and prepare for, the end of life, death, and how our views on those subjects are changing. In the first installment, WCAI’s Kathryn Eident explores what it means to come to terms with knowing that life is drawing to a close.
The sun is shining and the air is crisp as Kligler walks briskly along the Shining Sea Bike Path in Falmouth. Bodie trots ahead on a leash. At first glance, the 64-year-old looks fitter than most men his age. But in fact, on top of a series of chronic illnesses including diabetes, Kligler has metastatic prostate cancer. No amount of walking will save him.
“In patients at my stage of the disease, 10 percent are dead within seven months,” he said. “I don’t think I’m in that group, but I don’t know.”
Kligler knows that he is going to die sooner than many others in his age group. After living with cancer for 15 years though, he’s accepted that fact: his cancer is incurable.
“Knowing that life is coming to an end at some point lets you be more in the moment and more appreciative of the things around you,” he said. “I just enjoy the process of living and being here and not worrying about things that are coming down the road.”
As a baby boomer, Kligler is part of a generation whose sheer numbers promise to change the way we view aging, illness, and death. Every day, 10,000 Americans celebrate their 65th birthday.
On the Cape, more than a quarter of the population already is over 65. In 2014, there were more deaths than births here—a trend that’s likely to continue.
Medical advances mean people are living longer, too. But this comes with complications. With age often comes chronic illness and frailty, which require more services, medicines and procedures. Registered Nurse Tina Soares says older patients with chronic illnesses often end up in the emergency room, and sometimes it’s not the place they should be.
“Emergency rooms are there to treat the acute and address what symptom their being presented with or what major event that patient is facing medically,” she said. “The emergency room is really a different function.”
Soares is one of a growing number of medical providers on the Cape, and across the country, want to re-frame how we think about care as we grow older, so that we can make informed choices about the types of services we want. She wants people to think about managing chronic illnesses and frailty before they become really sick and make multiple trips to the ER.
“My focus is: How can we preserve quality of life sooner?” she said.
The answer for some patients at the end of their lives may be to choose services such as hospice and visiting nurses instead of opting for treatments and surgeries. Those medical procedures could extend their lives, but they also could leave patients weaker and sicker than before.
“The bottom line is, don’t ask, 'what’s the matter with me?' Ask, 'what matters TO me,'” Soares said.
Retired physician Roger Kligler agreed. He said he’ll choose hospice when he gets sicker. He wasn’t always so accepting of his cancer and his death, though.
“When I grew up, I was terrified of death. Even thinking about death was taboo for me; I could just not think of it at all,” he said. “Even early into my married life, I remember talking to my wife about it and she was great and said, ‘think of it like going to sleep. You’re not going to wake up and you won’t have any dreams.’ That resonated with me.”
That perspective motivated Kligler to do more of the things he cares about. He loves nature and counts herring and turtles for local conservation groups. He’s also passionate about the right of terminally ill patients to choose to end their lives with a lethal dose of prescribed medicine, a cause known as “Aid in Dying.” He’s part of a lawsuit filed last month against the state attorney general and local district attorney to push the issue.
“I’ve had cancer for 14 years and I know that the last several months of life will not be pleasant,” he said. “I would like to have the option that if I’m really suffering, I can say, ‘I’ve lived my life, enough is enough.’ I love my life. I love living in Falmouth. I’m not looking to end my life; I’m looking to not have to suffer in my last period.”
Kligler is not suffering yet. So, he’s putting one foot in front of the other to make the best out of the remaining miles of his life—along with the help of his buddy, Bodie.