11 Great ‘Being Mortal’ Discussion Questions


In the book Being Mortal, practicing surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande goes up against one of his profession's most difficult challenges. In this celebrated book, he writes about how modern medicine can improve life as well as the process of dying.

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With these new advances, they can make or break the experiences of living and dying based on how medicine is administered and how we look at health care and end-of-life issues. Medical treatment has changed the way we experience birth, injury, and disease. Once patients saw all of these traumatic events as harrowing, now they are not only ordinary but manageable and routine. 

When discussing aging and the dying process, Dr. Atul Gawande’s books tend to describe medicine as running counter to the public's interest to keep their loved ones alive at all costs. He also sees institutional medicine as opposite to what a patient's loved ones envision for their medical care and treatment. These can bring up a lot of questions for those within the medical profession and those who are actively dealing with medical issues of life and death.

The following questions provide an opportunity for a more in-depth discussion of the points brought up in Dr. Gawande's book on what it means to be mortal.

‘Being Mortal’ Discussion Questions for Class or School

The following Being Mortal book review discussion questions about death and dying can help medical (or any) students learn about the process of getting older or suffering from deteriorating health. A student can learn about what the medical community and society currently do for people who are dying, instead of what could or should be done for those facing the end of life. 

In particular, Gawande points out that family members and medical care providers want to find some measure of protection for themselves, whether emotionally or otherwise. Unfortunately, sometimes these wishes end up running counter to what patients themselves wish for in terms of treatment. This train of thought can provide a lot of ground for discussion with the following questions.

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1. How prepared are you to empathize and comfort someone who’s dying?

We assume that we know how to empathize and comfort those who are facing death. Even when we haven't done anything to engage with our loved ones who are dying. It's not unusual to interject our ideas on comforting others based on the preconceived notions we have in place instead of listening to those coming directly from our loved ones.

We often do this out of anxiety and fear of the unknown. We comfort those in the end-of-life stage based on what we think is the right way instead of figuring out what the dying need and want. Preparation comes from a place of willingness to listen and learn from what the dying have to say. 

2. Have you ever witnessed suffering such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich?

In his book, Dr. Gawande discusses the medical suffering of Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan was diagnosed with a medical condition that defeated medical science and the doctors aiming for his cure. After suffering through many failed attempts at treatment and his wife eliciting the help of top medical professionals to no avail, Ilyich, in the end, just wanted to be coddled and nurtured as a sick child would.

He longed for the simplest of things, such as being held, touched, and comforted. His friends and loved ones were so preoccupied with finding a cure that they overlooked his care and treatment. 

3. As a child, how was mortality discussed in your family?

Children in most Western families are rarely if ever, included in discussions on death and dying. For the most part, death is a taboo subject that even adults tend to shy away from discussing. Looking back to how you were raised, do you remember discussing mortality within your family? Were books like When Breath Becomes Air and others similar to this ever kept on the bookshelves for reading?

4. Have you ever seen anyone die? If so, did it have an impact on your end-of-life care wishes? 

Witnessing someone nearing the end of life can have a lifelong impact on the way you live and on how you want to die when the time comes. Factors affecting your thoughts and decisions on end-of-life care and medical treatment can definitely include seeing someone die.

Whether you witnessed someone dying in an accident, via a long-term illness, or another traumatic way, your experiences will undoubtedly shape your thoughts and feelings on death and dying. Consider a time when you were aware of someone's end of life and how it has affected you to this point. 

5. Do you see this book as an inspiration or as cautionary?

In his book, Gawande includes several examples of what it’s like to experience death and dying from different people’s perspectives. What he manages to raise in one tale, he dispels in another.

Give thought to how one person’s experience differs from the next and how everyone’s wishes for their last days differ or mirror the other’s. When considering how death affects everyone differently, think about how this book might inspire you or raise warnings for treating the terminally ill. 

‘Being Mortal’ Discussion Questions for a Book Club

Gawande's book can be a great addition for book clubs or support groups made up of individuals interested in what happens when they are nearing the end of life. Some of Dr. Gawande's concepts instill the notion that people who are dying can still have a meaningful existence in the weeks leading up to their death. He addresses how to assist those who are sick and how to help the elderly who are dependent on caregivers for support.

The following are some key points worth mentioning in your book club discussions. 

6. What surprised you most about Dr. Gawande’s description of the physiology of aging? 

Dr. Gawande details the body’s transitions as we age and offers a better way of living as we get nearer to death. He gives us an introductory lesson on aging physiology as well as the social and technological changes that lead to most people dying in hospital settings or institutions rather than in the comfort of our homes. 

7. Do you agree that we all need a cause beyond a basic existence?

When considering that food, safety, and shelter are the fundamental basics of everyone's existence, do you agree that we all need more than this to thrive instead of just surviving?

In his book, Gawande explores the human need for having more than just the basics to succeed beyond an empty existence. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, what have you determined your causes to be? Have you seen a change in your perspective as you get older?

8. Dr. Gawande discusses his daughter’s piano teacher Peg Bachelder, and her definition of a good day. What would your good day look like if faced with a similar circumstance?

We all have an idea of what a successful existence means to us. After reading the story of how piano teacher Peg Bachelder views her ideal good day, give some thought to what a good day would mean to you under similar circumstances.

What would make your existence more fulfilling, and how do you envision your perfect day to be? We all have our dreams and desires for what constitutes a good life. According to you, how does this story set the values that help you differentiate a good day from a not so good one for you? 

‘Being Mortal’ Discussion Questions for Medical Professionals or Medical Students

The medical profession generally focuses on ensuring a patient’s health, safety, and survival. Not much goes into ensuring that a medical doctor gets training on dealing with their aging patients' overall well-being. Medical science also limits the kind of follow-through that enables a doctor to see whether a patient is thriving outside their medical care.

Caring for aging adults and medically treating them are two different things. How does Dr. Gawande's book help you see things from a different perspective as you progress in your medical training? Here are a few questions to consider.

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9. Do you define yourself more by your medical successes or failures?

The idea here is to strike a balance between your medical success and failures. While most medical professionals define themselves strictly by their accomplishments, it’s equally important to focus on the losses to determine how to provide better overall medical care to patients. You can learn from your failures on how to improve your medical skills, bedside manner, and general compassion for the elderly and infirm.

10. Often, medical treatments fail. Why do you think it’s difficult for doctors and families to end or refuse treatment?

Medical statistics show that most efforts to cure disease or illness fail. At best, medicine can slow their progression but not cure someone 100 percent. Doctors, patients, and families will often have the “try everything possible” mentality regardless of how effective the treatments might be.

Consider why many people think this way as they’re facing the end of life instead of allowing for more natural death to occur. For many, they’d rather endure the agony of another medical procedure and recovery than face their demise more naturally and comfortably. 

11. What do you think about the three plagues of existence in a nursing home: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness? 

Nursing homes are generally regarded as a place for the elderly and infirm to wait out their final days before dying. The focus is not on getting someone well so that they can return to their homes, but rather a place where people come to die. While not all people share the same sentiment, understanding that when an older adult enters a nursing facility for the last time, their quality of life quickly diminishes.

How do you feel about this existence at the end of life for some? Are you more likely than not to recommend a patient’s admission into a nursing home? Or, are you more likely to suggest at-home nursing and palliative care?

Discussions on Being Mortal

Dr. Gawande’s book Being Mortal raises many questions on what it’s like to age in a Westernized society. The idea of radical medical intervention as end-of-life care versus dying a more dignified death are both weighed in on. This book is an excellent read for anyone who is imminently facing death and dying or wants to know more.

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