Recent news stories such as that of Marlise Muñoz in Texas and auto racing star Michael Schumacher serve as a reminder of the importance of discussing your wishes with others regarding end-of-life care. Select someone you trust to make those decisions on your behalf in case you become incapacitated, and sign the documents required to empower that person to act for you if necessary.
Most Americans say they want to die at home, surrounded by family and friends. But data from Medicare shows only about a third of elderly patients die this way. Taking a few small steps now can go a long way toward ensuring that your wishes are respected when the time comes.
You can start by talking to your family, your friends, and your doctors about your wishes in terms of death-delaying care in the event you are unable to make those decisions for yourself. Do you want “extraordinary” measures taken to prolong your life, such as major surgery or a mechanical respirator? What about artificial nutrition and hydration? Under what conditions? Is the cost of procedures to be taken into consideration? Do you wish to remain at home rather than be transferred to a hospital or nursing facility? Do you want to be an organ donor? Do you want to be buried or cremated? For help getting the conversation started, visit deathoverdinner.org. The website was launched last year for precisely this purpose. It provides invitation language, reading materials, conversation prompts, and hosting tips, among other things.
After you’ve shared your wishes with others, it’s important to select the person (or persons) you would like to have act on your behalf, if necessary. Typically referred to as an “agent,” a “health care surrogate,” or an “attorney-in-fact for health care decisions,” this person is authorized under an advance directive or a healthcare power of attorney to communicate with your physicians and make medical decisions for you if you are incapacitated. This should be someone you trust and who knows your wishes regarding medical treatment and end-of-life care and will be able to make decisions for you in accordance with those wishes. Typically you would designate only one person at a time to serve as your attorney-in-fact for health care decisions. However, you may be able to designate multiple individuals as your attorneys-in-fact for health care decisions. If more than one person is designated – my three children acting jointly, for example – consider whether any one or more of the persons designated may act alone, or if you want decisions made by majority rule. And be sure to appoint one or more successor attorney(s)-in-fact for health care decisions, to serve if your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve.
Put it in writing. According to the New York Times, only about 47% of Americans over age 40 have advance directives or living wills. State law governs what you will need in order to authorize another person to make medical decisions for you. Depending on your state, you may need what’s called an advance directive, a living will, and/or a healthcare power of attorney. A good resource for state forms and other information related to end-of-life issues is caringinfo.org. For questions regarding how to complete forms, you should consult your attorney.
Revisit and update your documents periodically. Have your wishes regarding medical treatment or end-of-life issues changed? Are the people you designated as your attorneys-in-fact and successors still aware of your wishes and able to act on your behalf? Have you moved to a new state? State requirements differ, so it’s important to sign documents that conform to your new home state’s specifications when you move.
Not surprisingly, doctors are more likely than the rest of us to have advance directives. This is one easy lesson in medicine that doesn’t require an M.D.