Mike Mercer
Mike Mercer

The difficult subject of end-of-life health planning is something most people don’t want to think about — and so they don’t.

No one wants to have the tough talks about last wishes, do-not-resuscitate orders or funeral home choices.

But one local chaplain wants to help change that.

Franklin resident Mike Mercer, a hospice chaplain with Community Health Network, works with patients who are facing the end of their lives — and those patients’ families — every day.

“We support people as they live in the final season of life,” he said.

During that final season, there is a need for support and direction, and hospice care helps with these needs. But helping people think through the practical questions, as well as questions of faith and spirituality, is something he wants to help the community with.

Medicare hospice patients are certified when they’ve been given 6 months or fewer to live with a terminal diagnosis.

To that end, Mercer has published a book, “Walking Home Together: Spiritual Guidance & Practical Advice For the End of Life,” which explores many such topics.

“I always ask them permission to share my own viewpoint if they want to hear that … As a chaplain, it’s my job to meet people where they are and help them come into their own peace.” —Mike Mercer

The book gives both spiritual guidance and some advice about practical considerations for the patient and the family.

“Hospice care is not about death but the final season of someone’s life. There’s still life to be lived,” Mercer said. “Accepting the fact that you’re going to die doesn’t mean you have to stop living now.”

Those who’ve been given a terminal diagnosis have a variety of needs, and every patient’s needs are different, he said.

Mercer has found that most people are more worried about their loved ones around them, rather than their own fears about death. Some have concerns about “where they go” after they die, while others have concerns about wills or estate inheritance issues.

Mercer and other hospice workers help patients and their families work through whatever issues they might be facing and offer support in whatever areas they can.

In addition to spiritual support or companionship for those who need it, hospice service social workers can help families with insurance paperwork or FMLA leaves of absence. Pastors can offer sacraments or officiate funeral services.

Mercer, who has been a pastor since 1978, works with each patient’s spiritual needs in a tailored way. He asks patients about their own beliefs or faith traditions and works to help them concentrate on those traditions instead of prescribing a set of religious beliefs.

If they’re afraid, he’d simply ask what they’re afraid of and ask them to expound on their thoughts. Patients often have many questions or topics to talk about — such as what the meaning of life is, what happens next.

“I always ask them permission to share my own viewpoint if they want to hear that,” Mercer said.”As a chaplain, it’s my job to meet people where they are,” he said, “and help them come into their own peace.”

Mercer encourages everyone — not just those facing hospice or disease — to think about end-of-life planning.

Younger people who are busy with careers and raising families don’t stop to consider issues such as these, Mercer said. Life’s distractions and the discomfort people feel in talking about these issues prevent them from making plans.

Down the line, that gets to be a problem, he said. Thinking through decisions like those ahead of time, however, lightens the burden for families when the time comes.

“Advanced care planning is not just for people getting older,” he said.

Just like 401k savings or creating a will, Mercer proposes people put together a document about end-life care where they can outline insurance policies, wishes for cremation or burial and funeral costs, and how they want to live when they’re dying — these are known as advanced directives

The discussions can evolve and continue as life goes on, but getting some ideas down on paper from the time people become adults can help save time, energy and heartache down the road.

“Plus, we never know when something might happen — it’s always good to be prepared,” Mercer said.

In the book, Mercer talks about a booklet called “Five Wishes” by a group called Aging with Dignity for end of life or advanced care planning decisions, in which people can put specific ideas down about such directives.

Community Hospice works with anywhere from 80 to 100 families at any given time.

At a glance

Community Hospice Chaplain Mike Mercer’s book, “Walking Home Together: Spiritual Guidance & Practical Advice For the End of Life,” is available on amazon.com.

Author photo
Anna Herkamp is an editorial assistant at the Daily Journal. She can be reached at aherkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2712.