Being prepared for the inevitable will help your loved ones left behind.
The older I get the more I find myself honoring as many death days as birthdays, As I watch my friends endure the loss of their loved ones as well, I am called upon to ask, “Do you have an Advanced Health Directive or Living Will?” I am continuously amazed by how few of us know anything about these incredibly important documents. Statistically two thirds of adults do not have one. So I am asking the same question of you, “Do you have one?” and offering some critical advice: “Get one!”
Here is what could happen if you get incapacitated and you do not have a health directive (or even better a Healthcare Power of Attorney). Since you cannot direct the decisions made about your care, someone else has to do it. The question is, who? As I understand it, if married, your spouse gets the first rights, then, your children then, your parents. Of course, the doctors have a say as well. The huge problem is when those people disagree, when you are not actually married to the one you live with, or when you have neglected to discuss your preferences with anyone. Suddenly your healthcare decisions, which may need to be immediate, get caught up in a feud between family and loved ones at an already stressful and heart-breaking time.
A health directive also helps support your decisions if the doctor wants to artificially prolong life (as this is, after all, their job), but you know that your loved one wouldn’t want to be kept alive on machines. The health directive helps to keep family harmony in the midst of crisis. To some extent, the directive keeps the decisions for what you want in your own hands, even when you cannot speak and it lovingly guides those who are in the very difficult place of making life and death decisions.
The directive also can dictate what you want done with your remains if you die. Imagine mom and dad wanting you in the family cemetery with a religious service when you want to be cremated and scattered in the Ganges River in India. Make sure you have your desires in writing so that your wishes are more likely to be honored.
Here are some things to consider:
How do you get one? A lawyer, and often your doctor, can provide the form for you, but you can do it yourself for free online. Be sure to have it notarized. Witnesses cannot be your decision makers and get it to the people who need to have it in a crisis.
Keep your directive up to date. If you put your spouse on your directive as the primary decision maker and then you go through a nasty break up, but don’t remove him or her from your directive, your care may still be in the wrong hands. I have a friend whose divorce from a completely unreasonable and angry husband is not finalized. If she were to get in an accident right now, he would have all the power over her care (or lack thereof).
Discuss what you want verbally, not just in writing. Be sure that the people who are in the decision making role know and understand what your wishes are before there is an emergency. Locating the directive and reading the directive for the first time should not be done under duress.
First responder. Sometimes the people who are first in line to make the decisions are not in close proximity to where you live. Consider having an alternate who lives near you to help guide your care, at least until your loved ones have time to get there. Critical decisions cannot be made from an airplane.
Trust. Creating an Advanced Health Directive can put some of our personal values to test. While you may love and adore your spouse or family, you may still have very different perspectives, and motives, when it comes to life and death decisions. Religious beliefs, financial gain or loss, emotional attachment, Eastern vs. Western medical perspectives, merciful death practices, among others all come into play.
As you decide who you want calling the shots for you, think beyond love. Think about who you trust to stay calm in a crisis, to make decisions in alignment with your wishes and who will stay loving with family members as they hold your life in their hands.