Thinking about the end of life is not easy.
Discussing it with your loved ones is often harder.
“After my mom spent nearly 20 years in a nursing home, many of them in a vegetative state, I got a call saying she had begun choking regularly when they fed her,” said Catherine Hammond, attorney at the Hammond Law Group, which practices only in estate planning and elder law. “They weren’t willing to continue feeding her for that reason. There were two options: give her a feeding tube or stop feeding her altogether.
“There was some disagreement between my brothers and I about what my mom would have wanted. It made an already painful decision about end of life even more difficult for us to have to guess and disagree about what she wanted. Thankfully, after further consideration, we came to a unanimous agreement that she would not want her life prolonged. She passed away peacefully later that week.
“For us, there are no lingering issues, but there easily could have been. That can tear a family apart and cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.”
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Simple Steps, Massive Impact
A recent joint survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Economist looked at Americans’ view of end-of-life decisions and care. Interestingly, more than half of those surveyed say they’ve had a serious conversation with a loved one about their own wishes for end-of-life care.
However, only 27 percent have written down their wishes for end-of-life care. Of the remaining 73 percent, the most common reason for not doing so is they haven’t gotten around to it.
“There are three documents – and they are super easy to fill out – that are essential for providing piece of mind for your family,” said Hammond.
- Healthcare Power of Attorney
- Living Will
- Universal HIPAA Release
Many people are uncertain about the best time in life to prepare these documents. According to Hammond, the answer is:
“Today, while you still can. We just never know what tomorrow will bring.”
A healthcare power of attorney assigns someone of your choosing to make healthcare decisions in the event you are unable to do so.
A living will expresses your wishes regarding end-of-life decisions in the event you have a non-reversible, terminal condition.
One of the most important documents is also one that is least familiar.
“A universal HIPAA release is a document that everyone needs and many people don’t know they need it,” said Hammond. “It’s what enables other people to talk to doctors and find out your location. Otherwise, they won’t even tell you if your spouse or parent is in the hospital, much less the room number they’re in or discuss their medical condition with you. In addition to the healthcare power of attorney and a living will, a universal HIPAA release is an absolute must for any human being over the age of 18.”
Easing the Suffering of Others
However, once those three essential documents are complete, there’s still one more step to take.
“Once you fill out the documents, it’s extremely important to have the conversation with your loved ones about why you filled them out the way you did and what quality of life means to you,” said Hammond. “So that no matter what the situation is, your loved ones can make decisions on your behalf with confidence that it’s exactly what you would want.
“I got into this business because my mother had early-onset Alzheimer’s. I put her in a nursing home when I was 22. It was a nasty, expensive, intrusive legal process.
“All that unnecessary suffering is the reason I went to law school, so I could help people. At least, if there is some sort of tragedy that causes disability or death, we can minimize some of the unnecessary suffering that goes with it.”