Hastings Center News
Robert Wilson Charitable Trust Enables The Hastings Center to Set Priorities for Future Work on Aging
It’s unusual for a funder to recognize that large societal problems are best addressed after deep reflection and a deliberate and inclusive process of consultation and priority-setting. “But then,” says Mildred Z. Solomon, president of The Hastings Center, “The Robert Wilson Charitable Trust is not your average funder. We are thrilled and delighted that the RWCT has recognized the reality that many societies, and certainly the United States, are aging societies that are going to face unprecedented challenges requiring unprecedented solutions.”
A great deal of bioethics scholarship and practice has focused on ensuring that patients and families have the right to make sound end-of-life care treatment choices as they face decisions about whether to use or forgo a ventilator or some other life-sustaining treatment. The Hastings Center has been at the forefront of securing those rights, particularly through the publication of The Hastings Center Guidelines for Decisions on Life-Sustaining Treatment and Care Near the End of Life, which has helped to set the norms in hospitals across the country.
“Now, says Solomon, “bioethicists and health policy-makers need to work together, not only to ensure people’s rights, as crucial as that is, but also to address people’s needs – their medical needs, yes, but also their social and logistical needs so they can age well, live life to the fullest for as long as possible, and die with dignity and companionship.”
People are living longer, but with more years of chronic illness and frailty. Many lack the financial, community, or health care resources they need to secure their own well-being, and often die in isolation or with family caregivers who themselves have become ill from the stress of their caregiving burdens. With support from the Robert Wilson Charitable Trust and with additional funds from Hastings’s endowment, the Center has begun “The Last Stage of Life,” a two-year planning process to determine how best the field of bioethics in general, and The Hastings Center in particular, can meet the new and complex needs of our aging society and of aging people and their caregivers. Principal investigators are Mildred Solomon and Nancy Berlinger, a Hastings research scholar.
As a first step, the Center recently brought together a wide variety of experts from numerous disciplines and societal sectors – including health policy experts, demographers, architects, philosophers, gerontologists, physicians, nurses, urban planners, and grant makers concerned with aging and end-of-life care. The meeting focused on defining a social ethics approach to this challenge and began identifying the values that should guide structures and policies to promote good and prevent harms and injustices to aging people and their caregivers. Among the questions explored were:
- What is the epidemiology of population aging in the United States?
- How well do our current structures and policies respond to age-related illness and frailty?
- What is human flourishing in the face of frailty?
- How can we understand and articulate what makes for a good life for people living with age-related illness and frailty, especially those with limited resources?
“To our knowledge,” says Berlinger, “this is the first opportunity for people from across so many different disciplines to gather together to identify and address ethical issues faced by our aging society.”
The Hastings initiative is consistent with Robert Wilson’s longstanding belief in philanthropic investment. During his lifetime, he was a generous and strategic donor to a range of organizations that contributed to the public good – in the arts, civil rights, the environment, and education. His investments leveraged additional funds for the issues he cared about, by the challenge he posed to other donors to join him in supporting causes that protected vulnerable people and places, supported creativity, and strengthened our democracy. As the Robert Wilson Charitable Trust’s trustee, Richard Schneidman, explained at the recent meeting: “Bob also gave great thought to the consequences of aging and illness, and to his own death. The very questions Bob faced, as an individual, are the questions that The Hastings Center, and the field of bioethics, have reflected on for nearly 50 years. They are some of humanity’s deepest questions. We are delighted to support Hastings in this important endeavor.”