She was just a kid when she knew she was drawn to death.

Shary Farr remembers being 6 years old and fascinated by what she was learning about ancient Egypt. “They seemed to pay homage to their dead, with end-of-life ceremonies and rituals,” she says. “It was unlike what I was seeing in America, where it was under wraps.”

Now 72, Farr is 40-plus years deep in a career oriented around helping people plan for their final years and their ends. And she sees it not as morbid, but a way to infuse life with more purpose, and to make the inevitable easier on ourselves and those around us.

“The ultimate goal in planning for death is to create more love and awareness in our own lives, which happens when you plan for our own death,” she says.

When she first started Partners for Transitions, clients were mostly in their 80s or early 90s. “They were doing it as a fire escape,” Farr says. “Now, people are in their 50s and 60s. It’s a big difference.”

That difference comes in partly because she says clients generally have more years ahead to feel liberated to take risks, and like they don’t have an impending task they’re dodging. The Partners For Transitions process generally lasts for six to eight sessions. Farr fills out an advanced health care directive, makes copies to stash everywhere – at local hospitals, in the glovebox, in the freezer. They visit local senior living facilities, and write down the ones they’d like to go to and those they don’t want to go to. They fill out a notebook with essential information, like banking passwords. They write love letters to mend any unresolved relationships in their lives. Most importantly, it forces a reflection on whether they’re living the life they wish to be living. “You can’t plan for the end of life and stay asleep as to the person you are,” Farr says. “You just can’t. That’s what I love about end of life, it makes us a better person.”

The planning process culminates with a small party. Farr brings snacks and Champagne, and a few family members often attend. People cry, she says, but not out of sadness: “They cry out of relief.

“They cry sometimes because they’ve stared death straight in the eye. When you’re no longer afraid of death, you have this freedom to do things that you’ve always wanted to do but you couldn’t because you were afraid of dying.”

For her part, Farr wrote a letter to her more famous husband, Sam – who served the Central Coast as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 22 years, before retiring in 2016. It’s handwritten (important, she says – don’t type emotionally weighty letters) and spells out her wishes in the event she develops dementia.

“Forget the promise we made to each other to keep the other one at home, ‘no matter what,’” she wrote. “Please move me to a facility sooner rather than later… Please, please, please continue to create a full life for yourself. Giving up your life and choosing not to be enriched or happy will not cure my disease.

“I want you out in the world that you love so much. And if that includes taking trips, getting a dog or having a new relationship, so be it!”

She adds that they’ve discussed specific facilities she prefers, and he should stock up on a supply of old movies. “I want my bed next to the window because I crave the light. And be good to the employees, because most of them are angels,” Farr says.

Other than that change – that she no longer wants to commit to staying in their home, no matter the circumstances – Farr says her own plan for her death and subsequent memorial hasn’t changed as she has aged.

“I can visualize it, and I just see kids and animals having a wonderful time on a sunny day in our property in Big Sur. It will be a giant thank you from me for what I consider a beautiful life.”


Aging, By the Numbers

76,257 number of Monterey County residents who are age 60 or older

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17.6 percent of Monterey County’s population aged 60 or older

1 in 5 estimated proportion of Monterey County residents who will be 60 or older by 2020

1 in 4 estimated proportion of Monterey County residents who will be 60 or older by 2030

35 percent projected increase for number of Americans age 85 or older from 2020 to 2030

52 percent projected increase for number of Americans age 100 or older from 2020 to 2030

$12,000 average annual Social Security benefit

80 percent of income that Social Security accounts for, for more than half of California’s seniors

1 in 5 estimated proportion of seniors in California currently living at or below the poverty line; California has the highest rate of any state of seniors living in poverty

Sources: U.S. Census; Monterey County Area Agency on Aging

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Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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