Promoting end-of-life planning: Mayors of three NJ towns launch unusual wellness initiative

     Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer works with Wellness Coordinator Janan Dave on a campaign to encourage families in the community to have end-of-life discussions. Mayer, who lost his mother last year, brings his personal experiences to the table. (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

    Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer works with Wellness Coordinator Janan Dave on a campaign to encourage families in the community to have end-of-life discussions. Mayer, who lost his mother last year, brings his personal experiences to the table. (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

    Cooking classes, community gardens, walking groups … these are typical activities associated with city wellness campaigns. But mayors of three New Jersey towns are kickstarting a rather unusual initiative this week.

    Partially inspired by La Crosse, Wisconsin, the campaign is called “conversation of a lifetime” and aims to encourage advanced-care planning and end-of-life discussions.

    Janan Dave, coordinator of the Mayors Wellness Campaign of New Jersey — a group made up of more than 300 mayors – says the campaign really took shape following a recent Monmouth University poll, which found most state residents say they’re comfortable with the thought of end-of-life decisions. Problem is, they aren’t necessarily making plans.

    “They know it’s important. They’re kind of thinking about it, and they’re willing to talk about it with families and friends and physicians and religious leaders,” says Dave. “But there’s not really a space for this to happen, and they don’t really have the push to get them started.”

    Half of those polled said they had legal documents expressing their wishes for end-of-life care.

    Dave reached out to several mayors to see if any would be willing to lead a local pilot campaign to change that.

    “Every single mayor said, ‘Wow, we should be doing something about it. This is really important, but I don’t know if I could be the face of it,'” she recalls. “I think that’s a fair point. As we all know, this isn’t the most glamorous topic.”

    Then she contacted the mayor of Gloucester Township, David Mayer.

    “I thought, ‘Wow, this is great! Now we can take this to the next level,” he recalls.

    Mayer’s enthusiasm stems from his own experience last year, as his mom was dying of complications from diabetes.

    “You’re in this whirlwind and all you hear is the wind around you,” he said. “You’re just caught up with what’s happening, and so it’s even more difficult to make decisions then.”

    Mayer says he thought his family was more prepared than most — for example, they’d completed living wills. Even so, he recalled feeling unprepared when nursing home, hospice and palliative care issues came up because they hadn’t talked about it in advance.

    “I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know there was a palliative care aspect of medicine until we went through this process and had to make a decision,” he said, adding that such decisions became harder amid the emotion and trauma of his mother becoming increasingly ill.

    Mayer hopes the Gloucester campaign will encourage such conversations early on through community events, reading groups and even movie nights.

    Dave says the initial goal is to involve three towns in the pilot. The mayors of Princeton and Tenafly have also signed on.

    The New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, the umbrella organization for the Mayors Wellness Campaign, helped design the campaign.

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