National Healthcare Decisions Day is on April 16th, and it's an important reminder for every adult to begin having difficult conversations with loved ones about their most private wishes for medical and end-of-life care.
These critical conversations include letting someone know your thoughts and preferences on things like life support, feeding tubes, organ donation, what is “quality of life” and who do you trust to make such decisions on your behalf.
As an estate planning attorney in Marietta, Georgia, I often receive frantic phone calls from people who are unable to access their loved one's medical records, make important decisions or come to an agreement as a family over the next steps to take regarding their loved one's medical care—ranging from whether or not to “pull the plug” to placing a parent in a nursing home vs. keeping them at home.
All of these disputes can easily be avoided by having open and honest conversations about health care wishes before a medical crisis strikes. National Health Care Decisions Day is a great opportunity to educate people in our community about the importance of health care directives so that they can begin moving in the right direction!
Far too many people assume that their families would make the choices they would want in an emergency. Yet every day we hear stories of adult children, siblings, or other relatives battling during a health care crisis over “what their loved one would have wanted” in that situation.
Incapacity Can Happen at Any Age
The Terri Schiavo case is a nationally-known reminder of what happens when a person becomes incapacitated without documenting their health care wishes. Only 26 years old, Schiavo suffered sudden cardiac arrest and slipped into a permanent vegetative state before passing away. She never documented her wishes about treatment options such as feeding tubes, life-support, and long-term care, leaving her family to battle for years over these issues in court.
Discussing your health care wishes in advance is a proactive way to help avoid a similar legal mess should you become disabled or incapacitated. But, your planning must not stop there. You must also clearly and legally document your preferences, as well as choose an “Agent” whom you trust to make such decisions if you are unable to speak for yourself.
Documenting Your Wishes Takes Pressure Off of Loved Ones
Remember, emotions can run high during a health care crisis, and it might be hard for your loved ones to stop life support, for example, when they desperately want you around. Having your wishes spelled out in writing helps provide guidance during a stressful time and makes these types of decisions easier for your loved ones, especially in cases when other family members don't agree.
How to Start “Tough Conversations” About Medical Care
In honor of National Health Care Decisions Day, set aside time this month to begin difficult conversations with loved ones about your personal preferences for medical or long-term care if you haven't already. Here are some important questions to consider:
- Whom do you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf?
- How do you feel about feeding tubes, life support, and other artificial life-saving devices?
- Is there any type of medical care you would NEVER want?
- If you were permanently disabled or incapacitated, what would contribute or take away from your “quality of life?”
- What are your thoughts on nursing home vs. in-home health care?
- How would you like your family to pay for the care you may need if co-pays become excessive or insurance does not cover your treatment?
A Final Consideration About Your Choice of Health Care Agent
One final point to consider when documenting your wishes and choosing a health care agent that will ultimately carry them out is that the person you nominate should want to have this responsibility. There are people who do not want or can not handle making medical decisions– even for their own spouse.
Remember, if the time comes that the health care directive needs to be used it is going to be a very stressful and emotional time for this person. Are they up for the job? Do they want the job? Take the time to have an additional conversation with whomever you are considering to ensure that they can, and are willing, to make the decisions that you would want in a crisis situation.
Steve Worrall is an experienced wills, trusts and estate planning attorney, probate lawyer and adoption attorney in Marietta, Georgia. He concentrates his practice in all areas of estate planning including wills, trusts, probate, special needs planning and guardianship, and adoption. You can reach him at 770-425-6060 or [email protected].