The only thing that is certain in this life is that we must die. Sounds awful and morbid. But what’s worse is the reality. Too many people die in a way that they would never choose. Too many people die in the hospital or in a medical facility, surrounded by machines, tubes, over-treated, over-medicated, and subjected to endless procedures until their last breath. While an unexpected sudden death obviously cannot be planned for, discussing your wishes, values, and end-of-life care choices is extremely important. The best time to have the conversation with loved ones is when you aren’t in the middle of the throes of a medical emergency. I’ve witnessed it too many times before. Someone is in the hospital, unresponsive or in critical condition. Family members have moments to make decisions that will significantly impact the life of their loved one. Disagreements and conflicts arise amongst family members in an already high stress situation. Emotions run high. How can anyone think clearly and make informed choices at such a difficult time? If your spouse, parent, sibling, or other close family member was hospitalized and you had to make decisions on their behalf regarding their care, would you be able to? If you and your loved ones do not have an advanced directive, it’s time to start working on one now. You never know when a medical emergency or accident may happen. The time may come in your 20’s or in your 80’s. Having an advanced directive in place gives you and your loved one peace of mind that all options have been openly discussed. Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware of advanced directives and the importance surrounding them. In 2014, a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that only about a quarter of Americans had completed an advance directive.
So what exactly is an advanced directive? An advanced directive is not just about “pulling the plug”. An advanced directive is typically comprised of two legal documents. A medical power of attorney names a healthcare representative or healthcare proxy to make decisions about your care in the event that you are unable to speak for yourself, for example in the event of a coma. The other document, a living will, defines your wishes with respect to the level of care you would want in the event of medical emergency. For example, in the event of a coma, would you want a feeding tube or to be placed on a ventilator?
My 4-year-old son often takes me on a date to the local diner on Wednesdays. Every time we are there, there’s a group of 4 ladies lunching at the same table in the back right corner. My guess is that they are in their late 80’s. They look fabulous and laugh a lot. We are often seated next to them. I must admit, the candidness of their conversations is both refreshing and shocking. This particular Wednesday, they talked about their deaths and end-of-life care openly and quite casually over their soup and half sandwich specials. I came to learn that they all had advanced directives. They were in agreement that there would be no resuscitations, that quality of life was more important than continuing treatments that had terrible side effects, and that if it was possible, all wanted to spend their last days at home. One woman stated she had finally figured out where to spread her ashes: she’d have a helicopter fly over Neiman Marcus and sprinkle her over the shoe department! Though I almost choked on my pancakes, I was impressed and made a mental note of that one.
We can’t plan everything. We can’t plan our death. But we can have a conversation. A conversation about what’s important to us at the end of life. If not at the diner, then at home over lunch or a cup of tea. CaringInfo.org is an excellent resource and great place to start. The site provides free advanced directives and instructions on a state-by-state basis. So, do you have an advanced directive yet?