Shary Farr and Partners for Transitions (January 31, 2020)
Our Agile Aging blog advocates proactive, mindful maturity. Peer Profiles illustrate this engagement with case studies of exceptional seniors, pursuing creative initiatives or wrestling with daunting challenges. Blog subscribers may remember John Phillips and Rancho Cielo, rescuing teens from the conjoined whirlpools of gang violence and repeated incarceration (Prior Post, July 15, 2019); Shirley Buccieri, figuring out how to organize and enjoy solo sojourns abroad (September 15, 2019); and Bill Dahlman, retraining his nervous system after a debilitating stroke (October 15, 2019). The rest of us may not be able to duplicate these singular achievements, but we can take inspiration from their energy and grit.
Shary Farr is devoted to another facet of enlightened aging, one of increasing interest to us all. She helps fellow seniors plan and prepare for the end of their lives. Her approach is personal, collaborative and confidence-building. In a series of COVID-enforced remote interviews, she explained how and why she does what she does.
FROM SEED TO SHOOT TO FLOURISHING TREE
By the age of six as she recalls, Shary Farr had a “passion for humanizing death.” By no means a death wish or an attraction to suicide. Not at all a morbid, gothic fascination. Instead, she was discovering within herself a calm, two-part conviction: that death and dying were normal, natural and inevitable; and that adults didn’t want to talk about or deal with these realities. Death was definitely taboo.
Through adolescence into early adulthood, Shary’s intuitive acceptance of death as a natural process matured into a vocation. This affinity was not religious, but it had a spiritual dimension. She wanted to help seniors plan for end-of-life challenges without denial or fear. She was confident she had a suitable temperament for performing this facilitation. What she didn’t yet know was how to convert her “emotional and philosophical commitment” into a practical service and sustainable business. By the late 1970s, she was beginning to find her way.
When she started out, Shary found no recognized discipline or professional field closely aligned with her vocation. Even today there is no state certification or licensing for what Shary has come to designate as her niche — Personal Transitions Planning. For a time she was certified as a Senior Advisor. But her concept is both broader and narrower, distinct from medical, legal and financial specializations as well as social work.
One threshold boost was working under the mentorship of Dr. Jerry Rubin, a respected Monterey-peninsula oncologist. In the late 1970s, he founded a hospice program at Westland House, mobilizing volunteers, including Shary, from the Community Hospital.
In her early days of independent practice, she also learned by doing. Her “greatest teacher” was a client who came to her for help preparing to be a widow. The woman’s husband was dying; the couple had no children and no other relatives in California. After his death, the woman herself was diagnosed with unexpected heart problems and given six months to live. And although she in fact lived another 12 years, during this period she developed dementia. She and Shary learned together how to help her age successfully, a daunting marathon involving technicalities like reverse mortgages and advanced-care alternatives. This trusting, on-the-job learning enabled Shary’s client to die with dignity.
Another formative lesson, painfully absorbed and steadily reinforced, was “to stay true to what I know about my subject, even if potential clients don’t want to hear it.” Getting them to start the process of planning forthrightly for certain death was often a hard slog. Too many times, Shary saw how seniors’ avoidance and postponement created later stress, not only for the individuals but also for their families. I asked for key causes of this procrastination. Her two explanations surprised me. “Superstition,” by which she meant not a black cat crossing the road but a visceral fear of inviting death merely by discussing it. And “family modeling,” in the form of precedents set and attitudes instilled by parents when clients were young.
Ups and Downs
Over the ensuing decades, Shary’s counseling practice experienced hills and valleys. When she started out, most of her clients were women in their 80s or even 90s, putting their personal affairs in order before dying. A long period followed when death fell out of fashion. Extending youth became the mantra of the day. Physical exercise and fitness, diet and rejuvenation creams. As for death, don’t ask, don’t tell. Shary gave lots of local talks and workshops but attracted few serious clients. The 21st century seemed to usher in a fresh willingness to acknowledge and prepare for death. She believes one inducement has been her aging cohort’s increasing awareness of invasive, debilitating life-support technologies, with attendant ethical and personal choices.
Shary experimented with a variety of business models. Initially she tried doing everything herself, working as a sole practitioner. As her practice grew, the volume proved unmanageable. At one early stage, she had 13 clients, six of them seriously ill. Apart from her resulting physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, she realized she was short-changing some clients, not fully meeting their end-of-life needs or expectations. “Done right, this is not a one-person job.”
She switched to building up a paid staff but found she couldn’t make ends meet in the troughs between peak periods. Eventually she hit upon a partnership with Michelle Wilsdon, backstopped by four independent contractors. In the past three to five years, even before the pandemic, her business has boomed. Her firm currently has more than 60 active clients.
I asked how 13 clients had proved overwhelming while 60 are being accommodated. Shary explained that, in her prior solo practice, her near-death clients needed constant attention and support, from medications procurement to bedside comforting. By contrast, as spelled out below, the lion’s share of the firm’s current work is strategic planning – more standardized and less all-consuming.
SHARY’S BUSINESS TODAY
Her Niche and Her Neighbors
End-of-Life Services is undeniably a growth industry. A partial directory includes estate-planning lawyers, tax accountants, investment advisors, insurance agents, realtors and estate-sale organizers, religious counsellors, mortuaries – and that doesn’t even count diverse medical-service providers. I asked Shary how she sees herself fitting into this crowded field: as a coordinator or niche-specific specialist. She said definitely the latter.
Labelling her core services “personal transitions planning,” she elaborated with broader brushstrokes: “We offer our clients emotional coaching and practical tools to plan and prepare for crucial senior decisions. Simple strategies for coping with uncertainty.”
Her firm’s name, “Partners for Transitions,” underpins this focus. The transitions she helps clients to navigate are intimidating elder challenges: retirement, downsizing and relocation; financial reversals; disabling injuries and chronic illnesses; loss of a loved one; death and dying. “Partners” emphasizes a working relationship between equals – the client and the advisor. Shary’s approach aims to nurture each client’s courage, security and confidence. Diminishing their fear empowers seniors by facilitating informed end-of-life choices. A thoughtful plan not only avoids ad hoc decisions during elder-health crises; it also eases clients’ candid transitional communication with spouses and families.
Shary emphasized that her working relationships with other specialists in the elder-care field are cordial and complementary. “There’s no competition or overlap. We all have different skills and contributions.” Her role is as emotional counsellor and personal transitions facilitator. If requested by clients, she and other professional specialists sometimes exchange referrals. When recommending such counterparts, she always suggests three candidates, to ensure that her client is in control and can make the choice. She further encourages clients to tap into their own family, community and institutional networks for leads to outstanding specialists.
Her Clients and How They Find Her
Shary works from Carmel on California’s Monterey peninsula. Her clients are individual seniors, though increasingly also couples. Overwhelmingly, these clients are women. (Statistically, women continue to outlive men, in California and nationwide.) In Shary’s professional experience, men “tend not to ask for this kind of help.” She surmises that it may be harder for them to acknowledge the emotional dimensions of dying, for example, their widows’ grief and adjustments if husbands predecease. She finds that men are “far more comfortable dealing with investments and wills.” In practice, this can cause them to neglect leaving their surviving spouses with a roadmap to computer passwords, bank-account or insurance-policy documentation. The result can be high stress and financial shortfalls while grieving.
Because the planning issues she helps clients deal with can be intimate and sensitive, establishing trust and confidentiality is crucial. Shary works one-on-one with a client before expanding the circle, when the client is ready, to spouses, siblings and/or descendants. Perhaps because of those same sensibilities, new clients normally come to her through word-of-mouth recommendations, most often encouraged by a close friend. There are also frequent referrals from estate-planning lawyers or chronic-disease doctors. Alternatively or additionally, new clients may be attracted by Partners’ periodic media profiles or interviews. Or by Shary’s regular speaking engagements. Interestingly, she finds that someone often has to attend more than one of these presentations before mustering the courage to initiate contact.
Given seniors’ common aversion to end-of-life planning that she’d already mentioned, I wondered what are some common levers to get them over the hump. Right now, COVID, for sure. More generally, a serious illness or injury requiring hospitalization. Experience stepping in to assist another senior friend with end-of-life documentation or placements. Or perhaps attending one of Shary’s talks or workshops. “All of these wake-up calls create time to reflect. This often produces a tipping point.”
What’s Her Allure?
I asked Shary what skills and personal qualities she credits with helping to expand her practice. Since she is a long-time personal friend, my list included her nurturing personality and stellar regional reputation. Without false modesty, she offered different explanations. One quality clients tell her they particularly appreciate is Shary’s demonstrated commitment to listening deeply and respectfully — to a client’s inner needs and concerns as well as to voiced declarations. Genuine compassion is also crucial. “People can tell if your caring is sincere.” Sticking with clients through plan implementation and end-of-life crises is central. Encouraging those clients to take charge and stay in charge, honoring and facilitating their choices, is also essential. Protecting clients’ privacy is another prerequisite, not bringing interested family members into the conversation and decisions process until a client has had time to formulate her/his own plans.
When I suggested that Shary’s own maturation might be enhancing her counselling credibility and empathy, she initially resisted. “Russell, I’ve been doing this for 40 years.” Then she quickly acknowledge there was one context in which parallel aging was probably boosting her professional effectiveness. “When I got started, 95% of my work involved death and dying. Now that folks are planning farther ahead, their aging and illnesses are becoming higher-priority concerns. For them and for me.” Having her personal experience of these senior challenges can build a bridge for the working partnership. “My clients and I are going gray together!”
NUTS AND BOLTS:
PARTNERS FOR TRANSITIONS
Shary envisions her firm’s core package of services as bookended around a client’s final, end-of-life transition. At the beginning of this working relationship, there is counselling, planning and preparation. Towards the end, there is implementation of that plan, supporting the client’s choices and facilitating death with dignity. At both ends, there’s no standard menu or fixed quantum of services. Each package is personalized, client-controlled and open for modification. Partners’ services are billed by the hour.
Partners for Transitions’ strategic-planning services are structured and delivered as a four-step, integrated and custom-tailored program. Shary characterizes this phase of the firm’s work as 50% emotional and 50% technical.
- An initial Conversation, in which she listens to a prospective client’s concerns and needs and spells out her firm’s responsive approach, experience and resources. This respectfully probing dialogue, which might extend over more than one session, could consume several hours. Its operational objective, as for the entire services package, is to establish an effective working relationship grounded in mutual trust.
- An All Together Notebook, compiling in one binder the main data and documents a client will need to access and implement planned end-of-life choices. Major information categories include personal property, financial, legal, residential, leave-taking and memorial. It’s not unusual to devote 10 joint working hours to this exhaustive compilation.
- An Advance Health-Care Directive, spelling out the client’s health-care instructions regarding the provision, withholding or withdrawing of end-of-life medical treatments; and designating and authorizing an agent to act on the client’s behalf to implement those instructions if the client is incapacitated. This preparation activity culminates in a conference with the client and her Directive-executing relatives or other agents. Partners for Transitions itself often acts as an agent or alternate agent.
- Love Letters, the client’s personal letters to spouses, children, friends, neighbors and mentors, looking ahead to express affection and appreciation before diminishment or death silences the ability to share what needs to be said. These hand-written messages constitute an informal legacy, to be retained in a central location for distribution by Partners upon the client’s incapacity or passing.
Shary personally takes the lead facilitating the Conversation and Love Letters. Her partner, Michelle Wilsdon, has chief responsibility for Notebook compilation. The pair share the firm’s work on Advance Health Care Directives: helping clients to fill out the forms, then later serving as agents or alternative agents if requested. When they are unavailable to perform the agency role, a team of trained independent contractors is available for backstopping.
The firm considers a client’s completion of planning and preparation as a major milestone. Not merely in terms of confronting intimidating challenges but more so for concluding demanding tasks. Partners normally celebrates the occasion by hosting a party in the client’s honor, complete with champagne and cookies. Family members are invited to participate if the client wishes.
Clients’ plans are annually reviewed and, if appropriate, updated. This support relationship commonly continues for several years.
The Second Bookend
When the end of a client’s life approaches and arrives, Partners mobilizes, if requested, to ensure that the client’s planned choices are honored and implemented. In this stage, the firm’s services might encompass some or all of the following forms of client assistance: comforting the client, notifying family and friends; liaising with other specialists; facilitating hospitalization and/or hospice care, if needed; invoking a client’s Advance Health Care Directive instructions when Partners has been engaged to act as an agent; supporting memorial arrangements and disposition of remains. Days of intensive professional and personal involvement may be required. Shary and Michelle share these duties.
Successes and How to Measure Them
Beyond the quantitative evidence of an expanded client roster, I asked Shary what other metrics she monitors to evaluate success. For her, the acid test is how well she is helping clients and their families face up to the need for end-of-life planning and then walking them through plan implementation that executes their choices. She remembers one couple, without surviving siblings or descendants, who agreed on their choices, relaxed during their final days, and died near each other in peace. “Even their neighbors were grateful and relieved.”
As each working partnership develops, Shary can often detect signs of progress from clients’ step and dress. “When they first approach our office, they tend to slouch and hesitate. Drab outfits are a giveaway. As they build trust in our partnership, they stride up the path. In bright colors.”
As for other indicators, Shary greatly values the letters of appreciation sent by clients and surviving family members. She has also received numerous honors and awards. (She was recognized as one of Monterey County’s 10 Most Outstanding Women by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.) But for her, the supreme accolade is her clients’ improved quality of life – replacing fear of death with confidence and courage.
ENTER THE PANDEMIC
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into Partners’ entire approach. In-person contact is essential for building trust. Now office consultations are impossible at the beginning of client relationships, as are hospital visits at the end. Some services like Notebook and Advance Directive advising can be done by Zoom or phone. But for clients and their families, as much as for the Partners caregivers, remote end-of-life goodbyes are a poor substitute for up-close intimacy.
Fortunately, no clients have yet contracted the coronavirus. And the pandemic has even had some positive influences. It is definitely encouraging more prospective clients to get their ducks in line, prodded by nightly TV images of hospitalizations and hearses. Simultaneously, it has encouraged the firm’s caregivers to check in more proactively with isolated clients, especially those who normally value their independence but are gradually suffering emotional and mental distress.
Looking ahead to a new normal after herd immunity is achieved, Shary anticipates that more clients will contemplate shifting sooner from traditional family homes to retirement communities with on-campus medical facilities. She also expects seniors’ end-of-life planning to become a culture-wide norm.
SHARY’S PERSONAL TRANSITION
Shary would like to retire in five more years, passing the baton to Michelle with appropriate support staff. After decades developing her dream enterprise, Shary is determined to leave a legacy in the form of a sustainable, full-time operation. (Both partners presently work part-time.) The client base is already expanding. A number of initiatives are launched or planned to elevate the firm’s visibility, broaden its outreach and deepen revenue streams. One is Partners’ first advertising campaign. Others include conducting professional training for outside, elder-care workers; and strategic-planning workshops for prospective clients, some only middle-aged but looking ahead.
As we concluded our interview series, I asked Shary about the flaming-heart symbol at the top of her website (www.partnersfortransitions.com.) She explained it’s a milagro, a Hispanic folk symbol literally meaning “miracle” or “surprise.” Ubiquitous throughout Spain, Latin America and Southwestern States, milagros come in hundreds of shapes, colors and materials. As votive offerings, they are mounted or carried to attract protection or good luck. The heart icon in particular can convey multiple sentiments. For Shary and for Partners, it signals compassion, “so our brave clients can sing.”
For me, this Peer Profile has been a welcome prompt to independently refine my own forward planning.