Ultimately, every one of us will need to face the reality of death—that of a loved one or our own. And, unless death is untimely and instant, we’re also going to have to face a decision about when to stop trying to prolong life and enjoy what’s left for us.
Although it’s likely not the conversation you’ll want to have with your family, doctor, lawyer, and spiritual advisor any time soon, discussing what you want to do at the end of your life is a very important step to take—and one that can save your family and loved ones a lot of heartache and grief.
The National Institute of Aging (NIA) suggests three basic steps you should take when considering end of life issues.
Plan. Now more than ever, there is a panoply of options in healthcare that can, if desired, extend a person’s life well beyond what was imagined just a few decades ago. Advances in medicine mean options for families, and options mean there’s a lot to consider and discuss.
“By deciding what end-of-life care best suits your needs when you are healthy, you can help those close to you make the right choices when the time comes,” suggests the NIA. “This not only respects your values, but also allows those closest to you the comfort of feeling as though they can be helpful.”
To aid with your planning, the NIA has developed a very comprehensive guide to end of life decisions. You can download the PDF here.
Discuss. There are a few key people with whom you’ll want to be sure and discuss your end of life plan, namely: your family, your doctor, and your lawyer. If you’re so inclined, it would also be beneficial to have a discussion with your spiritual advisor.
It’s important to include your family in the discussion from the very start. Just like having the proper life insurance coverage gives your relatives peace of mind, so too does being intimately involved in your plan for how you’ll manage any end of life decisions that you may have to face together.
Your healthcare provider(s) will also need to be in the proverbial loop because, without a discussion and a documented living will and advance directives, a medical provider must preserve life—even, in some cases, when life is no longer of the quality that you may wish to maintain.
“By having previously documented personal wishes and preferences, the family’s and physicians’ immense decision-making burden is lightened,” says Siamak N. Nabill of Medicine.net. “At the same time, patient autonomy and dignity are preserved by tailoring medical care based on one’s own choices regardless of mental or physical capacity.”
It’s also important to have a conversation with your attorney on the matter of living wills and advance directives to ensure that any paperwork you’ve completed is done properly, in line with state and local laws, and is “bulletproof” in terms of its being put into effect when needed. The American Bar Association is a great resource for legal information on end of life decisions.
Document. Once the discussions are had and the decisions made, it’s utterly essential to ensure that you’ve properly documented your advance directives and living will and that your relatives (especially those with power of attorney, or POA), medical providers, and attorney(s) have current copies on hand. A recent case in Texas illustrates the gut-wrenching outcome of not having legal certainty in end of life decisions, and so documentation becomes all the more important.
Facing end of life decisions alone or with your family is not an easy task. Certainly it’s not something our youth-obsessed culture would ever have you consider. But taking the time to be thoughtful and thorough saves your family a lot of heartache, your doctors a lot of questions, and your lawyers a lot of time. Best of all, discussing your end of life plans and properly documenting them gives you peace of mind well before you’ll ever need it.