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"Everything will be done to extend his life - period!" Herb's wife Sandra said, hands on her hips.

"Surely you don't mean this,” Herb’s son Stephen responded, waving his hands at the ventilator and wires everywhere. “He’s unresponsive with no reasonable hope of recovery! And if he did regain consciousness, what kind of life would he have?"

"Stop it!” Herb’s daughter Shelley cried. “Daddy wouldn't want us at each other's throats!"

Herb's family was in turmoil. His life was in the balance, and there was debate about exactly what "life" was.

We all have somewhat different definitions of "life." For the purposes of this article, I'm going to divide us into three broad groups.

For Group A, to be alive means to have a heartbeat. These folks are typically in favor of extending life at all costs. They want everything possible done as long as possible.

For Group B, life is more than this. It consists of the ability to be somewhat independent, functional, and mentally competent. This group expects and tolerates some declines with aging, but would rather die than be permanently incapacitated (mentally or physically).

For group C, serious physical or mental restriction is unacceptable. Life means being an active, significantly contributing member of family and society. These folks would prefer to die younger rather than see their abilities dwindle.

Whatever our definition, one thing I've heard time and again is, "I don't want to linger and be a burden."

Linger. I found two interesting, somewhat different definitions:

1. To remain or stay on in a place longer than is usual or expected, as if from reluctance to leave.

Most of us would like to stay a while. We would be reluctant to leave, for various reasons. We might like to stay longer than expected, but that probably depends on our situation.

2. To remain alive; continue or persist, although gradually dying, ceasing, disappearing, etc.

This definition is a bit heavier. Gradually dying and ceasing to function doesn't sound pleasant or attractive. Who wants to slowly disappear? I certainly don't want to know what the etc. after disappearing might mean. This definition has the feel of moving from substance to shadow to nothingness.

Whatever our personal definition, "linger" doesn't have pleasant connotations. It describes that "living but less than alive" state none of us wants our loved ones or ourselves to be in. "Lingering" and "being a burden to others" seem connected in our minds.

We want to laugh, love, and contribute. We want to matter, living with a sense of mission and purpose. Aging challenges this.

A few months ago, we talked about how we can fall victim to "the incredible shrinking life." As time, injury, and general wear-and-tear whittle away at our physiques and abilities, we can be tempted to discouragement. We end up thinking we are less valuable somehow.

In reality, we have much to offer, like the invaluable qualities of experience, perspective, and wisdom. Aging becomes the battleground where we must expand our hearts even as our limitations increase. This doesn't happen naturally. We must be intentional.

In many ways, we're not in control of whether we linger or become a burden. Yet, there are three things we can do now to make it easier on ourselves and others down the road.

1. Get our paperwork in order.

Do we have up-to-date wills? This can save a lot of pain, conflict, and frustration for those we love. What about a medical and financial power-of-attorney? Who makes decisions if we can't? If we don't decide this in advance, it can create incredible stress for our families.

Do we have living wills? Does our next-of-kin know our wishes about being resuscitated, placed on life-support, etc.? Do they know where our important documents are?

Some of us haven’t thought about this because we don't want to. However, if we don't contemplate our desires, get them in writing, and make them known, these daunting decisions fall on our children. I know many who are plagued with guilt, wondering if they did the right thing for their parents. When parents are prepared and clear about their wishes, much pain can be avoided.

A lack of preparedness can cause us to become the burden we said we never wanted to be. Our loved ones deserve clear guidance. Getting and keeping our affairs in order is a practical way we can express love.

2. Make healthy choices now.

Many who come down with sudden, severe illnesses haven’t had regular medical check-ups. Some of these conditions aren’t sudden at all, but rather the result of not being exposed to trained eyes over time.

If you're not in the habit of medical check-ups, do yourself and those you love a favor. Make the call. Go. Prevention and detection are much easier than aggressive treatment and intervention.

Of course, basic health lies in the midst of our routine. Quality sleep, healthy eating, and appropriate exercise have always been the building blocks of fitness and quality of life. Don't worry about being perfect. Take intentional steps to live more wisely.

What will your next step be? Figure that out, then implement it. Then move on to the next healthy step. Health rests upon a firm foundation of nutrition, exercise, and rest.

3. Focus on relationships

Why don't we want to be a burden? Other than the embarrassment factor, the answer is obvious: relationships.

I’ve heard this repeatedly from my hospice patients: "Life is about people and relationships." Reflecting back on the years, their greatest joys and worst regrets involve other people.

Now is the time to love. Now is the time to say what we want and need to say. Now is the time to move toward making those strained relationships right. None of us knows what's coming next. What we have is now.

We’re wired for relationship. We’re designed to love and be loved. This is why we get our paperwork in order and make healthy choices. It’s all part of loving others.

It's hard to be a burden when you're focused on loving. You're giving away what the people around you need and long for. That makes you a blessing, even if you can’t do what you used to.
Let’s prepare well, make healthy choices, and do what we can to be that blessing today.

Gary Roe is an author, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. Visit him at www.garyroe.com or contact him at 979-821-2266 or groe@hospicebrazosvalley.org