As we age, the financial services industry bombards us with invitations to steak dinners and seminars promising to reveal the secrets for protecting our assets from estate taxes, probate expenses and Medicaid laws. (I get them too!) But we’re rarely offered any guidance on how to communicate to our family and friends how we want to live out the rest of our lives, and how we can maintain control over what happens to us when we’re no longer able to live the way we do now.
Remember Terri Schiavo? She was the 41 year old brain-damaged woman whose husband and parents fought from 1990 to 2005 over whether to remove the feeding tube that provided her life support. While her situation was much more dramatic, many families are torn apart because they disagree on medical treatments for an ailing parent, or how long life-sustaining support should be maintained after a parent can no longer communicate with them.
The most difficult part of expressing what we want, whether we’re young and healthy today or diagnosed with a terminal illness, is starting the difficult conversation. One excellent resource for this is the conversation project. The website provides guidance on how to talk to family members, provides a starter kit for discussion, and has a number of other tools available.
Part of our planning process with our clients is making sure they have estate planning documents, and that they are updated at least every 5 years. It’s difficult for many people to make them a priority, because it feels like just an administrative task if their financial situation hasn’t changed much, and as a result it gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. But two documents are critical for avoiding stress and permanent rifts among family members, and can even give us some peace, knowing that we have made our wishes clear:
A living will is a legal document designed to tell everyone what treatments you want when you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious and can no longer make your own healthcare decisions. Do you want CPR? Do you want them to use every means to keep you alive? This document trumps your health care power of attorney.
Aging with Dignity provides access to the Five Wishes, a document that walks you through the decisions that must be made to prepare your living will, and can be used as a legal substitute for a living will in all but 8 states (and Ohio is one of them!) In Ohio it can be attached to your Ohio living will document.
Health Care Power of Attorney
This document, sometimes called a durable power of attorney for health care or health care proxy, authorizes another person to make health care decisions for you. The person you name must make decisions consistent with your wishes, and they can’t overrule your living will.
The Ohio State Bar Association has an excellent website that answers practical questions about situations and what people can and cannot do with the above documents. Once you have them prepared, you should give one to a trusted member of your family, your doctor and lawyer, and the person you’ve named as your healthcare power of attorney.
While these legal documents are critical for enforcing your wishes, the most important thing to do is communicate with your family and friends.
If you feel it’s too difficult to do so in person, then write them a letter. Hand it out to everyone, and have a conversation after you’ve accessed some of the resources above for help.
Thanksgiving is almost here, and I can’t think of anything better to be thankful for than knowing your feelings are communicated and understood.