Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Death Café in San Francisco

"An awareness and understanding of death raises our state of life. When we are cognizant of the reality and inevitability of death, we begin to seek the eternal and become determined to make the most valuable use of each moment of life." -- Daisaku Ikeda

This year, I've had the unique opportunity to attend the Death Café. Not knowing what to expect, I listened to peoples' views and experiences about death and shared some of my thoughts in a small, informal setting. To my pleasant surprise, the discussions were lively and engaging. As a result, I felt inspired to dedicate a blog post on the Death Café. I contacted Jim Van Buskirk, who co-hosts San Francisco's Death Café each month with Danielle Brandon and Harvey Schwartz. Jim has kindly answered my varied questions about the Death Café and about his interest in death-related matters. 

What is the Death Café?
It is a group of people interested in sharing stories and experiences about a variety of topics related to death and dying. Various conversations have focused on aging parents, one's own mortality, dealing with clutter, wills and advanced care directives, communication with and visitations from the "other side"... People share wonderful stories and there is often, paradoxically, lots of laughter. Our experience shows that people are starving for a safe place to share their beliefs and fears.
Image courtesy of

How did you become involved with the Death Café?
My friend Harvey, knowing my interest in death, asked me if I had heard about Death Café (DC). We were both surprised that I had not. We attended one together at Chapel of the Chimes where we met Danielle. The three of us San Franciscans decided we would co-host a DC. We looked at the guidelines at and I knew that the San Francisco Public Library's (SFPL) community meeting room policy would accommodate our use of the Potrero Branch library's room. We divided up the few tasks: I was the contact with SFPL for room reservations, Danielle posted the event on, and Harvey was the conduit for RSVPs. Our first meeting was a success and we have continued for over a year, with one held at the AIDS Memorial Grove and another at the Fernwood Cemetery in Marin.

Why do you think this subject interests you?
Initially I was interested in subverting the taboo against talking about the inevitable. Over a year later, my interest has deepened into a spiritual calling. I continue to read books, watch documentaries, attend presentations, and talk to people about death and dying. I am continually developing my annotated bibliography on the topic. For example, I am working with the SFPL on an ongoing series entitled, "We're All Terminal: Living with Death & Dying," in which various aspects of a range of topics are addressed by speakers, films, book discussions and/or presentation formats in an effort to offer attendees appropriate resources within their comfort zones.

Jim Van Buskirk
How has your view of death changed as a result of facilitating and taking part in these discussions?
I understand that people move through the world differently and have a wide variety of belief systems and areas of fear/confidence. Although no one knows what happens at the moment of death or thereafter, some are fearful of eternal nothingness, while others eagerly anticipate the next big adventure. The more I learn about the topic, the more fascinated I am, and the more I want to share my discoveries. Some people are eager for the opportunity to discuss the taboo topic, others remain uncomfortable.

Why do you think American society avoids talking about the subject of death? 
I have lots of theories, some related to Ernest Becker's pioneering book "Denial of Death" and the Terror Management Theory, developed by psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon, based on Becker's ideas. I also believe there is pervasive magical thinking, that if one doesn't talk about death, write a will, make arrangements, one will somehow avoid the inevitable. We as a society have outsourced so many markers of death. One used to die at home, the body washed and prepared by the same women who birthed babies, and be buried in regularly-visited church graveyards. Now people die in nursing homes and hospitals, mortuaries whisk away the body, and people are urged to "get over" their grieving process. All of this is unhealthy individually and societally. By being removed from the fact that we will all eventually die, we are removed from our humanity.

Any interesting anecdotes from the discussions?
Many, but one participant in particular, stands out. She is a beautiful young woman, a pediatrician who is dealing with her own cancer diagnosis. In her cancer support group, she is not allowed to talk about dying so she regularly comes to DC. As a physician, death is seen as a "failure" so she is not comfortable sharing her feelings in that environment. Her ability to articulate her dual perspective is a welcome addition to the group. Participants have shared death from various cultural perspectives including Italian, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Buddhist, small town/big city, etc. Some people afterward apologize for not saying much in the group, but express their gratitude for being able to soak up the energy, saying that this is where they needed to be.

Many of us prefer not to think about death, let alone talk about it. Nevertheless, attending a Death Café may help you look at life and death in a whole new way. I highly recommend it! If you have attended a Death Café, I would love to hear about your experiences. A very big thank you to Jim for a thoughtful and thought-provoking interview. For more information on finding a Death Café near you, visit

Monday, October 10, 2016

On the Topic of Robots at The Legacy Film Festival on Aging

Left: Robot Dog. Right: Alice Cares.
As a graduate student, I conducted a literature review on the subject of robots as caregivers for older adults. A few professors thought this topic was controversial and would not support my paper. Even with the proliferation of robotics technology, the idea of using robots to augment the caregiver shortage is often met with ambivalence. On this subject, two robot-themed films were featured in the 6th Annual Legacy Film Festival on Aging (LFFoA): Robot Dog, directed by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari, about an aging (presumably childless) Japanese couple and their beloved robotic dogs, and Alice Cares, directed by Sander Burger, on a Dutch pilot study pairing Alice, a social 'care-bot', with older women who lived alone. In both films, robots provided companionship and helped decrease feelings of loneliness. In addition, Alice encouraged healthy behaviors and inspired social interactions between its users and other people.

After the screening, I co-facilitated a discussion and Q&A with Victor Wang, an MIT-trained roboticist and researcher. The interactions between the subjects and robots in the films were mainly positive, and many LFFoA audience members found the films and discussion interesting and educational. A few, however, expressed concerns, and even disapproval of the idea of robots as caregivers. I was not surprised that some people would find the idea distressing, as I found similar opinions among professors and classmates regarding my literature review topic on robots and caregiving.

Concerns often revolve around fears that reliance on robots would lead to elder neglect, or that robots would gain too much control over people. Robot technology is far from being perfect, but it's fair to say that having human caregivers does not guarantee that older adults would always receive the best care. Geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson states many caregivers are overworked, and supplementing care with robots may reduce neglect and abuse. From a logistical standpoint, Johan Hoorn, the researcher from the Alice robot study, states that there won't be enough people to provide care for the global aging population. Utilizing robots, therefore, may become a necessity.

Left: Alice Cares. Right: Audience discussion with Victor & Koko. 

Many of our beliefs are shaped by our cultural environments, and until recently, caregiving was provided solely by people. It's no wonder that many older adults are uncomfortable with the idea of receiving assistance from robots. In contrast, the Japanese are enthusiastic towards the use of personal robots. Author Christopher Mims suggests that Japanese share the cultural belief that everything has a soul, which was also mentioned in Robot Dog. This may partially explain why older Japanese do not seem as distressed over the use of caregiving robots. Personally, I see myself utilizing robots in older age and wonder if my attitudes stem from my Japanese heritage and from growing up in a technology-dependent environment? In addition to receiving practical assistance, a robot's cool impartiality appeals to me as I imagine it would not care how old I am, what I look like, or be irritated by my personality quirks. It would not lose patience if I become forgetful due to memory changes, and it would not take things personally if I'm in a foul mood and should utter unkind words.

Quite possibly, robots may help fill the caregiver shortage in the coming years. Nevertheless, it is always critical to include older adults in the entire process of creating robotic products so they can be active participants rather than passive recipients of technology. In looking back at the LFFoA, the films on robots and older adults stimulated honest conversations about ways to support our aging family members and to think of our own needs as we age. As always, I applaud LFFoA for featuring thought-provoking, socially relevant films on aging. I'm grateful for having had the opportunity to be part of this unique event!