Celebrities’ end-of-life issues offer lessons on what to do

There comes an age when you begin to hear with increased frequency of the medical challenges or deaths of celebrities you loved growing up. It’s a harsh reminder of our mortality.

Because the stories of these deaths are so widely disseminated, they can also serve as cautionary tales about later life challenges and planning to ensure your own wishes are followed when you die.

The best example of this is Joan Rivers, who lived into her 80s with vibrancy, zest and attitude. Her death was sudden and unexpected. She died from “therapeutic complications” as a result of surgery.

As a comedian, she made many jokes through the years about her death.

Rivers was very close to her daughter, Melissa, and her grandson, Cooper, and before her death she made sure they knew they would survive her loss and go on to live full lives.

Just as important, she had the conversation with her daughter about her end-of-life wishes, which is why Melissa was comfortable taking her mother off life support and giving her the funeral of her dreams.

When Rivers expressed her wishes, she gave the gift of peace of mind to her daughter at a time when grief and guilt could have consumed her.

Even when death from a chronic disease is imminent, some people have a hard time making the appropriate plans. Aretha Franklin, who died in Detroit recently at age 76 from pancreatic cancer, was one of those people.

Franklin’s lawyer, who has represented her in entertainment matters for nearly three decades, said he constantly asked her to draw up a trust, but she never got around to it.

Her four sons have filed a document listing themselves as interested parties. Her estate will be tied up in probate for some time.

Under Michigan law, when a person dies without a will, it is said the person died intestate. The law has rules for what happens to a person’s property when a person dies without a will.

These rules are necessary because there is no will to provide direction as to how the deceased wished to distribute their property.

Tim Conway’s dementia diagnosis teaches us another cautionary tale about what can happen when wishes may be spelled out but family members do not agree.

Conway, 84, severely impaired with dementia and now recovering from brain surgery, is the subject of a battle between his wife, Charlene, and Kelly Conway, his daughter from an earlier marriage. The reports in People magazine say Charlene wants to move her husband to a different care facility. His daughter vehemently opposes the move and has gone to court to seek to be appointed conservator.

Tim Conway, whose net worth is estimated at $15 million, most likely had plans in place legally, but his daughter is challenging his second wife’s ability to care for him properly.

The court will eventually decide who will be appointed conservator, but it is very sad that this may be the final “news” we hear about Tim Conway until his death.

Lastly, there is much talk these days about middle-aged people who die by suicide. Anthony Bourdain was 61. Kate Spade was 55. Robin Williams was 63.

A report released recently from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that suicide rates for women 45 to 64 increased nearly 60 percent between 2000 and 2016. For men of the same age the suicide rate increased almost 37 percent over that time.

Depression, stress, a decline in health, substance abuse, financial pressures, loneliness and relationship problems are all cited as factors that can contribute to suicide.

The CDC says there are warning signs for suicide. A person may talk about feeling like a burden, feeling hopeless or wanting to die. An increase in anxiety, extreme mood swings and increased anger are also signs that someone may be at risk. Increased substance use, sleeping too much or too little and looking to obtain a firearm are also warning signs.

The CDC recommends that anyone in need of help call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255). Another option is to talk online with someone at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Both options are free and confidential and will connect people to a counselor in their area.

We like imagining that celebrities live the life of Riley, but they are human just like the rest of us.

It’s possible we can learn from the publicity their lives and deaths bring, making us more aware of things to consider as we age.


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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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