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At my last wellness exam, I was surprised when my doctor asked me to read Being Mortal. What was he trying to tell me? It was so different from the “you’re in great shape” message I expected.

Written by Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School, Being Mortal explores the challenges of aging.

We learn that aging is a relatively new problem. For most of human history, the average life span has been 30 years or less. But now thanks in large part to modern medicine, many of us will reach the point where our body parts “just fall apart.”

As we age, what are our options when we can no longer live independently?  In contrast to Gawande’s grandfather in India, who was surrounded by a multigenerational family until his death at the age of 110, we have created nursing homes that offer care and safety at the expense of our privacy and freedom. For many, the result is boredom, loneliness and helplessness.

Better solutions do exist. Gawande points to the example of the Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New York. It was transformed into a place full of hope with the addition of animals (100 parakeets, four dogs, two cats, a colony of rabbits and a flock of laying hens), a vegetable and flower garden, and an on-site childcare and after-school program.

We also face the limits of modern medicine itself. Gawande describes patients who have treatments that prolong their lives but cause debilitating side effects. When should we say “no” to these treatments? When is the time right to end our days with palliative and hospice care?

These are questions we should discuss with our doctors and loved ones. “For human beings,” Gawande says, “life is meaningful because it is a story.”  When faced with our own mortality, we have an opportunity to write the last chapter based on our values and on what gives our life story the most meaning.

So, what was my doctor trying to tell me? It’s time to have conversations about my life story.