More elderly and fewer children…

who will make final decisions in the future?

By Angela Y. Lee

With an aging, childless future, who’s going to take care of us when we get old? Who’s going to make those end-of-life decisions for us when we can no longer decide for ourselves?

A recent global report from Axios, “The Aging Childless Future,” shows that in the U.S., a fertility rate below the “replacement rate,” according to the Centers for Disease Control, occurs at the same time as the rise in global life expectancy. In 2015, the global life expectancy of about 70 years old will rise to 83 years old in 2100, according to U.N. data.

The report states, “Except in Africa, by 2050 about a quarter of the world population will be 60 or older. At about 900 million now, their numbers will rise to about 3.2 billion in 2100. By 2080, those 65 or older will be 29.1 percent of the global population — and 12.7 percent will be 80 or over, Eurostat reports.

A troubling takeaway from the report is that there simply will not be enough workers to support the elderly, In the U.S., there are fewer than four workers per retired person. In seven European countries, there are three and in Japan, there are two workers per retired person.

The implications of this population shift affect public policy, health care, elder care, end of life decisions, the overall economy and every family in America and across the world.

I understand this firsthand. My mother is 96 years old and has Alzheimer’s. Two months ago she suffered a massive stroke and was in a coma for two weeks. Her heart rate slowed down to the 50s and 60s; her blood pressure dropped to 70/44. Her body was not ingesting the food she was fed through a feeding tube.

My siblings and I decided to remove the tube to make her feel more comfortable. We were preparing for her departure; and the priest (who was a former student of hers) came to administer the Annointing of the Sick. And one of us was always there with her.

Gradually her heartbeat got stronger, her blood pressure started to climb and she was able to breathe without the support of the ventilator.

The doctors’ prognosis was bleak — our mother would inevitably get pneumonia, or some infection. We had discussed and all agreed that we would not want to prolong her suffering. So no resuscitation, no reattaching to the ventilator and no antibiotics.

What about the feeding tube? One option was not to reintroduce nutrients through the feeding tube and essentially let her waste away. The other option was to reintroduce nutrients and wait for some infection to happen (which according to the doctors was just a matter of time). Starving mother to death might be a more humane decision, but it was immediately rejected by my sister who is a Buddhist. She thought our mother wanted to live and we should honor her wish and give her a chance.

Mother did not have a living will. We were all trying to make a decision on her behalf — based on what we thought she wanted, based on what we thought was best and on what we personally would like to happen if we were in her situation.

Our mother had on occasions before the stroke complained that she was bored and life was not worth living. But that didn’t necessarily mean that she wanted to die. Her complaint could be her way of telling us that she wanted us to visit more often.

Families all across the globe are faced with similar scenarios. In a future where perhaps children are not there to facilitate these decisions, how will these life and death decisions be decided and by whom? Leaving these decisions to chance, or to administrators, health-care workers and other strangers is a frightening possibility.

Everyone should have a living will — in order to depart this world with dignity, free from prolonged pain and suffering. However, an end-of-life decision made as young and healthy people may not be the same end-of-life decision when older, weaker and perhaps unable to communicate.

Research in affect forecasting — or  the ability to accurately predict future emotions– has consistently shown that people are reliably inaccurate in predicting how they would feel in different situations

In one study, younger participants with a mean age of 25.5 years and older adults with a mean age of 74.3 years have been shown to make different predictions about how they would feel if they win or lose money.

Older adults reported feeling less negative than younger adults when they lost money. Who is to say that end-of-life decisions made when we are young are the right decisions for us when we are old?

My own research has shown that when people are cognitively depleted or physically tired, they feel more vulnerable and are more likely to engage in self-protection. Across different studies, depleted participants reported being less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as having unprotected sex and more likely to engage in risk-reduction behaviors such as getting tested for kidney diseases and chlamydia.

When people are not able to think properly or reason logically, they revert to relying on instincts. And the survival or self-preservation instinct is a very strong instinct. So if we are trying to make an important end-of-life decision for ourselves when we can still think properly by anticipating what we would want when we could no longer think properly, we may be off the mark.

If our mother’s will to live is what enabled her to come out of the coma and get off the ventilator, then withholding nutrients and let her waste away is equivalent to murdering her.

Many people have a will,  a legal document that specifies the distribution of one’s assets after death. People change their will as circumstances change and they re-decide who should inherit how much of their assets.

People should also have a living will, a document that allows people to state their wishes for end-of-life medical care, in the event they become unable to express their decision. Health-care providers are usually the ones to suggest or remind patients to have a living will.

But more than just having a living will may be the best practice. Given the frequency of poor performance on affect forecasting and given that perspectives and sentiments often change as we age, perhaps perhaps there needs to be a system in place to prompt regularly revisiting the terms of the living will.

Our mother is in a hospice/rehab facility. She takes pleasure in the daily visits and phone calls of her five children. We are doing our best.

Everyone needs to learn more about end-of-life experiences in order to make better end-of-life decisions for ourselves and for our loved ones.

Perhaps there can be a public policy on not just who has the legal authority to make end-of-life decisions, but also with guidance on how to make these decisions.

In the not too distant future, for people who are childless, these decisions are best not left to chance.

Complete Article HERE!

A Graceful Exit: Taking Charge at the End of Life

How can we break the silence about what happens when we’re dying?

By

I was standing in my cubicle, a 24-year-old fact-checker envisioning a publishing career of glamor and greatness, suddenly shaking as I read the document my mother had mailed. It detailed her wish that I promise never to keep her or my father alive with artificial respirators, IV-drip nourishment, or anything else she deemed “extreme.”

I was horrified, and slightly angry. My mom was a 54-year-old literature professor who’d spent the 1970s eating whole grains and downing vitamins. She was healthier than anyone I knew. Why get so dramatic now? It seemed ghoulish, not to mention premature. But I scrawled my signature at the bottom of the page and shoved it into an envelope, my mother’s voice in my head, prodding me along.

As with the whole wheat and vitamins, my mother—back in 1990—was onto something long before it became conventional wisdom. But these days, Americans’ approach to aging and death is rapidly evolving, pushed both by the numbers and the grim reality behind them: In 40 years, 19 million Americans will be over 85, all at high risk of losing the ability to care for themselves or dwindling away because of organ failure, dementia, or chronic illness. (The days of a sudden fatal heart attack are fading; by 2008, the death rate from coronary heart disease was down 72 percent from what it was in 1950.)

So while many seniors now live vigorous lives well into their 80s, no one gets a free pass. Eating right and exercising may merely forestall an inevitable and ruinously expensive decline. By 2050, the cost of dementia care alone is projected to total more than $1 trillion.

My mom’s decision to face her end came not from any of these facts, but from the nightmare of watching her own mother’s angry decline in a New York nursing home. “You’re all a bunch of rotten apples,” Grandma growled at visitors, the words erupting from her otherwise mute lips. And there she sat for three years, waiting to die. “Why can’t you just get me some pills so I can go?” she would sometimes wail.

The slide toward death was only slightly less awful for my father’s mother. Grandma Ada would greet me with a dazed smile—though it was impossible to know whether she recognized the person standing in front of her wheelchair—before thrashing with involuntary spasms. An aide would come to restrain her, and then my dad and I would leave.

This cannot be right. This cannot be what we want for our parents—or ourselves.

In denial

Despite our myriad technological advances, the final stages of life in America still exist as a twilight purgatory where too many people simply suffer and wait, having lost all power to have any effect on the world or their place in it. No wonder we’re loathe to confront this. The Patient Self-Determination Act, passed in 1990, guarantees us the right to take some control over our final days by creating advance directives like the one my mother made me sign, yet fewer than 50 percent of patients have done so. This amazes me.

“We have a death taboo in our country,” says Barbara Coombs Lee, whose advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, pushed Washington and Oregon to pass laws allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending medication for the terminally ill. “Americans act as if death is optional. It’s all tied into a romance with technology, against accepting ourselves as mortal.”

For proof of this, consider that among venture capitalists the cutting edge is no longer computers, but life-extending technologies. Peter Thiel, the 45-year-old who started PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, has thrown in with a $3.5 million bet on the famed anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey. And Thiel is no outlier. As of 2010, about 400 companies were working to reverse human aging.

Talking about death

The reason for this chronic avoidance of aging and death is not simply that American culture equals youth culture. It’s that we grow up trained to believe in self-determination—which is precisely what’s lost with our current approach to the process of dying. But what if every time you saw your doctor for a checkup, you’d have to answer a few basic questions about your wishes for the end of life? What if planning for those days became customary—a discussion of personal preferences—instead of paralyzing?

Dr. Peter Saul, a physician in Australia, endeavored to test this approach by interviewing hundreds of dying patients at Newcastle Hospital in Melbourne about the way they’d like to handle their lead-up to death—and how they felt discussing it. He was startled to find that 98 percent said they loved being asked. They appreciated the chance to think out loud on the subject. They thought it should be standard practice.

“Most people don’t want to be dead, but I think most people want to have some control over how their dying process proceeds,” Saul says in his widely viewed TED lecture “Let’s Talk About Dying.”

Nevertheless, when his study was complete, Newcastle went back to business as usual, studiously ignoring the elephant in the room, acting as if these patients would eventually stand up and walk out, whistling. “The cultural issue had reasserted itself,” Saul says drily.

Slow medicine

It’s hardly surprising that medical personnel would drive this reexamination of our final days. Coombs Lee, who spent 25 years as a nurse and physician’s assistant, considers her current advocacy work a form of atonement for the misery she visited on terminal patients in the past—forcing IV tubes into collapsed veins, cracking open ribs for heart resuscitation.

“I had one elderly patient who I resuscitated in the I.C.U., and he was livid,” she says. “He shook his fist at me, ‘Barbara, don’t you ever do that again!’ We made a deal that the next time it happened we would just keep him comfortable and let him go, and that’s what we did.”

It bears pointing out, however, that many doctors dislike discussing the ultimate question—whether patients should be allowed to choose their moment of death by legally obtaining life-ending medication. Several have told me that the debate over this overshadows more important conversations about how to give meaning to what remains of life. In Europe, the term of art is euthanasia—the practice of injecting patients with life-ending drugs—which remains illegal in the United States. But whatever the method, many physicians would prefer to avoid the entire topic.

“I don’t think euthanasia matters,” Saul says. “I think it’s a sideshow.”

While arguments flare around this, Dennis McCullough, a geriatrician in New Hampshire, has noticed a quieter answer taking shape among his own patients. Many are themselves retired doctors and nurses, and they have taken charge of their last days by carefully mulling the realities of aggressive medical intervention. Rather than grasping at every possible procedure to stave off the inevitable, they focus instead on accepting it. In place of scheduling never-ending doctor’s visits, they concentrate on connecting with others.

McCullough has termed their philosophy “slow medicine,” and his book about it, My Mother, Your Mother, is starting to attract attention around the world.

“If you go to a doctor to get a recommendation for having some procedure, that’s probably what’s going to happen. Doctors are driven by revenue,” he said in an interview. “But many of the things that we can do to older people don’t yield the results we’ve promised—medicine can’t fix everything. ‘Slow medicine’ is being more thoughtful about that and staying away from decisions based on fear.”

This attitude is gaining traction. In November, several hundred physicians plan to gather in Italy to discuss slow medicine (a name lifted from the similarly anti-tech slow food movement), and McCullough’s book is being translated into Korean and Japanese.

“What’s the last gift you’re going to give your family? In a sense, it’s knowing how to die,” he says. “Staying alive is not necessarily the goal.”

Death with dignity

I consider my mother-in-law, a practicing Catholic and right-leaning political moderate, a barometer for this slowly shifting national consciousness. She is in her mid-60s and healthy, but has already written directives specifying that Bach be played at her bedside and perfume scent the air, if her health deteriorates to the point where she cannot say so herself.

Personally, I’m relieved. Unlike my 24-year-old self, I now find it comforting to plan these things, rather than living in fear of them. But I would still be mired in denial were it not for former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, whom I wrote about in 2008 when he was pushing for a Death with Dignity law and I was a newspaper reporter.

Shaking with Parkinson’s disease, he tried to spark conversation about legalizing physician-assisted aid-in-dying while attending a luncheon in downtown Seattle with a small circle of business friends: “I have a real tough time understanding why people like us, who’ve made tough decisions all their lives—buying, selling, hiring—do not have the right to make such a fundamental decision as this,” Gardner said, referencing his wish to take life-ending medication when his illness becomes unbearable, to gather his family and die when he chooses.

The men sipped their soup. They did not approve. They did not even want to discuss it. Yet that stony opposition—which mirrors the position of the Catholic church, groups representing the disabled, and hospice workers dedicated to maintaining “studied neutrality”—has, ironically, begun to nudge talk of death into the open.

Gardner, to my mind, had articulated the central concern: Wherever you come down on end-of-life decisions, the question is one of control—and who is going to have it over our bodies at the last moments.

Thus far, only Washington and Oregon have passed Death with Dignity laws, though a voter initiative is scheduled for the November election in Massachusetts. In Montana, the courts have ruled that physicians who prescribe life-ending medication for the terminally ill are not subject to homicide statutes; in New Mexico, two doctors have filed a suit challenging prohibitions against “assisting suicide.” And in Hawaii, four doctors willing to prescribe life-ending medication have geared up for a similar fight.

Yet after 15 years of legalized aid-in-dying in Oregon, the biggest news is how seldom people actually invoke this right. Since 1997, fewer than 600 terminal patients have swallowed doctor-prescribed drugs hastening their ends, though 935 had prescriptions written. Did 335 people change their minds at the last minute? Decide in their final days to cling to life as long as possible?

If so, that might be the best thing to come out of Compassion & Choices’ campaign: a peace of mind that allows us to soldier on, knowing we can control the manner of our death, even if we never choose to exercise that power.

My own immediate family ranges in age from 3 to 84, and I envision a dinner in the not-too-distant future when we will gather, talk about how to make my parents’ final journey as meaningful as all that has come before, and raise a glass to the next stage. Maybe at Thanksgiving.

Complete Article HERE!

How to Properly Prepare for End of Life Care

Sometimes death comes like a thief in the night. Other times, there’s a slow and clear buildup. In the latter scenario, one of the benefits – if you can even call it that – is that you have time to prepare for the end of your life.

By

Preparing for Your Final Chapter

At some point, it may become clear that whatever healthcare, treatments, medication, or procedures you’re pursuing to prolong your life are no longer effective. You may also come to realize that they’re doing more harm than good – robbing you of the opportunity to enjoy what time is left. When these revelations become clear, the best thing you can do is stop and focus on your quality of life.

As sobering as it is to accept, you will eventually pass on. And either you pass on without any purpose or plan – leaving the burden to your loved ones – or you can take the time to prepare for the end of your life and, in the process, provide a greater sense of closure for everyone involved.

Everyone’s end of life care situation will be different, but here are some suggestions to help you approach this sensitive and emotional time with poise:

1. Have Important Conversations

The first step is to have the right conversations with the right people. When you decide to stop seeking treatment or pursuing certain healthcare options that are designed to extend your life, it’s important that people know.

Your family needs to know that you’re dying – not so that they can feel sorry for you, but so that they may process it in a healthy manner. These conversations are more for your loved ones than they are for you. Set aside some time to speak with parents, siblings, grandchildren, close friends, mentors, etc. You don’t have to be overly sentimental or wise – just be yourself. Honesty will go a long way.

2. Make Your Wishes Known

Now’s the time to make your wishes known. If you’re currently in a nursing home, hospital, or another care facility, it may be wise to move back home. This will lessen your chances of receiving poor care from a staff that may neglect certain important needs. Instead, you can receive personalized care from your loved ones (who are more likely to respect your wishes).

If you haven’t already done so, now’s also a good time to designate a trusted loved one to make medical decisions on your behalf.

“This person, called your healthcare proxy or medical power-of-attorney, is the person who you know will make decisions the way you want them made and who can most easily stand at your bedside, if necessary,” patient advocate Trisha Torrey writes. “Your proxy will need to make decisions for you if you are in a coma, have a sudden heart attack or stroke, experience another debilitating event, and can’t speak. In addition to your primary representative, you’ll want to designate who your second choice representative should be.”

If there are specific details that are important to you, make these clear as well. For example, some people only want certain individuals present when the time comes for them to die. Other people don’t care. Speak your mind now so that you have the chance to die on your terms.

3. Get Financial Matters in Order

Hopefully you already have a last will and testament drafted. If you don’t, go ahead and do so. This will allow you to direct your finances and assets to the right people. It also saves your heirs from having to deal with the legal fallout of an estate that hasn’t been properly accounted for.

4. Secure the Right Burial Arrangements

Finally, be sure that you establish and document your burial arrangements prior to your passing. This is one less thing your family has to worry about. It gives them the opportunity to grieve properly, rather than hurrying around to figure out administrative details.

Leaving With Grace and Dignity

You will leave a legacy when you die. Whether this legacy is positive or negative remains to be seen. By preparing for the end of your life with purpose and dignity, you’ll increase the chances of passing on a legacy that people are happy to attach themselves to. Take some time to think about your wishes and how they can be executed tastefully.

Complete Article HERE!

Comparatively few African Americans make end of life plans

By Glenn Ellis

The entire lifespan of most African Americans is consumed by efforts to overcome obstacles, inequality, and in many cases, institutional racism.

The most difficult point in this most tiring journey is often the end-of-life. For the disproportionate number of us is when death is accompanied by the dilemmas around how we choose to die.

Hospice; Palliative Care; Advance Directives; and Compet-ency become terms that we, or our loved ones, all of a sudden are faced with and expected to deal with.

Studies and observations show that, likewise disproportionately, we are not prepared for this final stage of life.

What we know is that African Americans are less likely than any other group to be prepared for end-of-life, and not surprisingly, are less likely to have a prepared Advance directive.

First, let’s talk about Advanced Directives. This is the document that should be prepared to outline, in detail, what type of care (if any) we desire as our lives come to an end, and we are not able to make decisions for ourselves.

An Advanced Directive includes things that typically are not even thought about during times when life is good.

Generally, it will include things such as a living will or do-not-resuscitate order, or in identification of a health care surrogate. Regrettably, it’s not until we are in a hospital ICU; Hospice Center; or even on Home Hospice that we (or our loved ones) are confronted with having to make difficult decisions, while dealing with imminent death.

In spite of the fact that studies show that 80 percent of Americans would prefer to die at home, the reality is that 60 percent of us will die in a hospital; 20 percent of us will die in a nursing home; and only 20 percent will end up in a situation where we will be able to make our transition in the comfort and peace of our own home.

If you are not competent, or capable, to make medical decisions but do not have an advance directive, or it is unavailable when needed, decisions will nevertheless have to be made.

In 2013, The Pew Foundation did a study and found that while 73 percent of all Americans have given “some thought” to end-of-life, only 37 percent of African Americans have done the same. This means that doctors and others on the care team of a terminally-ill patient may decide to continue providing care and treatment, when you may feel that your loved one has had enough, and should be allowed to die in peace, with dignity. In the absence of an Advance Directive, this could become a point of contention, and the patient is caught in the middle. Or, it could be the other way around, you may feel that there is still hope for a recovery, and the doctors feel that there isn’t. Again, the patient lies there in limbo, and often suffering unnecessarily. For African Americans, it’s worse. One study found that only 13 percent of all African Americans have an Advance Directive in place.

It can be a difficult, and often, an uncomfortable conversation, but collectively, we have to begin to have conversations during the “good” times in life with our families and loved ones about what we do and don’t want should we ever find ourselves in a position where we are unable to make medical decisions for ourselves.

Think about how often we attend funerals, and families are still reeling over how things came to an end with conflict and contention between families of a patient who died, and the medical staff at the hospital. Think about how different it would be if we made our wishes known, before something happened unexpectedly.

A few things that may be helpful for you in getting an Advance Directive for yourself:

First you need to familiarize yourself with the term: life-sustaining treatments. Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary defines this as “Medical procedures that would only prolong the process of dying or sustain a condition of permanent unconsciousness. A patient who is receiving life-sustaining treatment will die soon, whether or not treatment is administered. Life-sustaining treatment may include a respirator, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), dialysis, surgery, and other medical procedures.” Would you want any of these? If so, under what circumstances?

Most importantly, let your loved ones know what you have in your Advance Directive. People only like surprises for their birthdays. Don’t wait for them to find out at an emotionally difficult time, when they are grappling with the inevitability of your death.

You don’t need a lawyer to create your Advance Directive. But you do need to make sure you understand the laws of the state you live in regarding Advance Directives. Some states have restrictions that you need to be aware of that may prohibit your wishes.

Complete Article HERE!

The Case for Advanced Directives

By Aldis Petriceks

Five minutes. That is all I had to make my case: to convince this 80-year-old man to fill out an advanced care directive. John, as I’ll call him, had served in the military for over thirty years, risking life and limb for his country. Many times he came close to death, suffering fractures and blast injuries and witnessing the raw, unfiltered trials of war. He retired as soon as his pension kicked in, and hadn’t worked in over 25 years.

Neither had he paid much attention to his health. Once, he had a loving wife and two children, and was concerned with his body—how it would hold up to the wear and tear of aging. But his wife had passed away ten years earlier, and his children were now estranged. John lived alone in his house, lonely and unemployed. And so his hypertension, coronary artery disease, and chronic kidney disease no longer delivered the same existential fright. All John wanted to do was sit in his home, away from others. And that is what he did.

Then, two months prior to our meeting, he was hospitalized with pneumonia. Weeks later, he was hospitalized again. And again. And a fourth time in two months, despite a week-long stay involving critical care and mechanical ventilation just days beforehand. He was running a fever, and his breath was labored. He lost his appetite and control of his bowels. The combination left John nutritionally shortchanged, and his medical team was forced to place a feeding tube directly into John’s stomach, passing straight through his abdominal wall.

Yet for all this treatment, John’s prognosis wasn’t looking any brighter. Lab tests returned with clear signs of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies; they also suggested possible liver disease. And while John passed his cognitive exams, he was diagnosed with mild depression. But all he could tell the medical staff was how he had “been through so much worse”—and how he just wanted to go home, get away from the beeping and humming hospital, and be done with it.

Three minutes. All these facts and histories left me with one general, almost blanketed feeling: John was not going to live much longer. If John really wanted to go home, if there was really some way in which we could do right by him, we had to act now.

I was sitting face-to-face with the man. It was as if his tired, tumultuous medical history—like some solemn but unexpected musical score—was playing before me with a surprising timbre. One might have thought that this military man would want to fight, would need to fight—but the opposite was true. He was just plain tired. Tired of the hospital, tired of the doctors, tired of the medications, tired of the tubes in various orifices, natural and artificial. John just wanted to go home.

Ninety seconds. I had spent most of the conversation probing John’s mind, trying to find what mattered to him. I asked him what his understanding of his illness was. I asked him what concerns he had. I tried to uncover his goals, his priorities. Then: which outcomes were unacceptable? Which compromises seemed favorable? And ultimately, what did a good day look like?

Forty-five seconds. John had answered all my questions. Yet I realized that, for all my probing, I was still beating around the bush. John was probably not going to live much longer; and if we didn’t take initiative, he might live the rest of his life bouncing in and out of hospitals—a prospect he abhorred.

But how could I ensure that John wouldn’t return to the hospital for treatment he didn’t want? Thirty seconds. The answer was simple, stupefying: an advanced directive. With John’s advanced age and complex medical history, he needed something to explicitly convey all that he had just told me. His concerns, his goals, what was unacceptable, what could be compromised: if these were written down, John would stand a markedly better shot of living—and yes, dying—on his own terms. So I spent the last half-minute of our conversation describing the advanced directive form, highlighting its purpose and importance. He seemed uncertain, suspicious at first. Was I telling him that he would die? But he soon realized that, in reality, this form was not about his death. It was about his life, and what he did and did not want if something were to happen to that life. I saw a spark of change flicker across his eyes, as he looked down at the form I had handed him.

Then time was up, and John—the 80-year-old war veteran, the man with pneumonia and cardiovascular disease—transformed into a young, presumably healthy woman, as the two of us chuckled at the change. But what had just transpired was not fiction—not quite, at least. What had transpired was the enactment of a timely, crucial endeavor for our modern healthcare system.

Since the start of the new year, I’ve been participating in a weekly seminar at Stanford’s medical school, focused on difficult conversations surrounding serious illness. My motivations are simple: as a future physician, I face countless difficult conversations ahead, many of which will reveal my profound incapacity to guide another human being through the sufferings that they, and not I, experience. That is—I will be incapable, if I don’t come prepared.

So I was excited for the seminar’s second session, held a few weeks ago, on advanced care directives. On their surface, advanced directives are quite simple: legal documents dictating how a person’s health care decisions should be made, if that person becomes incapable of making those decisions. But what sorts of decisions are specified? How does one fill this document out? And what role do healthcare professionals have in the process?

The questions pulsed through my mind as I spoke with “John”—a character, essentially, played by a classmate who had read a fictional case report before class. (The case, nonetheless, was based on actual patients.) My job, playing the role of medical professional, was to help John understand his situation, his fears, his desires. That’s it. Even though we had spent the first half of class learning about advanced directives—their benefits and shortfalls—I was under no agenda to push this document in his face. Or at least that’s what I thought.

When I actually got to speaking with John—portrayed in Oscar-worthy fashion—I realized that I could not separate his situation, his fears, his desires, from the value of an advanced directive. As many families already know, things become messy at the end of life. Questions abound about the intensity of treatment, the continuation or refusal of care, the proper setting for one’s last days. These questions can be difficult for patients themselves; even those who have plenty of time to think. Now imagine a family, deciding in a split second whether or not the medical team should resuscitate their 80-year-old grandfather (or whoever it may be), without any prior guidance. Or, think about someone bouncing between home and hospital for the last few months of their lives. Assuming they were cognizant enough to be aware of the situation, what would they think?

They might hate their last days. Or, they might want things that way. This is the exact problem: without advanced directives, we simply don’t know. So when I read through John’s case before class, and when I met the “real” person before me, I couldn’t get these documents off my mind.

But what are these documents? For all the largeness and complexity of life and death, advanced directives are rather simple. Though a wide variety of different forms exist, two components are almost always included: the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care (DPAHC), and the “living will.” In the DPAHC section, one lists an individual (and alternates) to make one’s medical decisions in the scenario that one is no longer capable of doing so. The “living will” section complements the DPAHC, providing specific instructions for things like prolonging (or not prolonging) life, and when (if ever) pain-relieving medication should be withheld. There is usually room in this section for “other wishes”—for example, the wish that one never be intubated. In the form used for class (which is also the form used in Stanford Hospital), sections followed pertaining to organ donation, designation of a primary physician, and witness statements. The entire document was only 5 generously-spaced pages, and there was no jargon. In the first half of class, I filled out my own advanced directive in fifteen minutes.

The form is valuable and simple. But there are still problems to overcome. For one thing, a recent study found that only 37 percent of Americans currently have advanced directives. This is in spite of a resurgent national conversation on end-of-life care, and new Medicare reimbursement for physicians who provide advance-care counseling. And while older adults are more likely to have advanced directives (particularly those in hospice care), no demographic has even approached comprehensive advance-care planning. Americans with chronic illness, for instance, have a 38.2 percent advanced directive completion rate—compared to 32.7 percent in healthy individuals. As one physician told Reuters, “The fact that only a third of sick patients are expressing their end-of-life wishes means we’re in trouble.”

There is clearly some gap, some pitfall, which has stifled the full potential of advanced directives. And as I learned while talking to “John,” that pitfall sometimes sits right in the middle of the doctor’s office.

Even after a lecture on advanced directives, I had struggled to communicate the relevance of these documents to a tired and cynical man. (Even if he was, in reality, a driven young woman.) I found myself struggling with his worries: that this form would take away his independence, that he was signing up to die. But thankfully, these same worries provided a key entryway to John’s desires and values. For advanced directives are, in truth, a declaration of one’s independence. They can be changed or revoked at any time, and superseded by a patient’s spoken or written word. The DPAHC can be restricted to certain decisions, allowing the patient final say in others. If this hypothetical man was tired of the hospital, burdened by the strangeness and beeping of intensive medical care, the advanced directive was one way to reclaim control.

The five minutes of role-play ended with a debriefing between my classmate and I. We chuckled over our thespian shortcomings, and the awkward unnaturalness of the first few minutes. But the lessons learned were no joking matter. We were both future physicians, preparing to serve an aging population—most of which had not thoroughly planned for the end of life. One document was not going to solve this problem, but it was a good place to start. The implications were thus clear as the seminar ended and we waddled off to lunch. My classmates and I would have to understand these forms, understand how we might talk about them with patients of all ages and activity levels. We would have to understand the rhythms of inpatient and outpatient care—how and when one might talk to patients about these forms. But most of all we would have to understand people, their goals, their fears, and what matters to them.

We will have much longer than five minutes to prepare. But our duty is urgent, and we must learn to make our case.

Complete Article HERE!

Talking about advance directives is a perfect holiday conversation

By Kenneth R. White

Until Louisa’s accident, you could almost always find her working in her garden, pulling weeds, deadheading old blossoms, coaxing tomato vines up their stakes. Well into her 80s, she still made a full midday meal every Sunday for her family and an ever-shifting gaggle of neighbors, grandchildren, and friends — basically anyone who showed up hungry.

As vigorous as Louisa was, when she stumbled and fell earlier this fall, it changed everything. Landing awkwardly on the hard ground, her skull hit a paving stone, causing bleeding inside her brain that led to immediate unconsciousness. After Louisa was rushed to the local hospital, she underwent emergency surgery, but it yielded no improvement. Still unresponsive, she was transferred to a quaternary academic medical center for further evaluation and treatment. But there was nothing more to be done.

As her garden hibernated beneath piles of dead leaves and bits of snow, no one could believe this had happened — or imagine life without Louisa. The 180-degree pivot from healthy and upright to comatose left them breathless.

Family members encircled the hospital bed where she lay: broken bones set, minimal brain activity, a machine breathing for her. I asked them whether Louisa had an advance directive or a living will. Their silent stares were my answer.

It’s not an unusual situation, and they weren’t alone in saying no. In Virginia, where I live and work, nearly 5 million adults don’t have advance directives, including many of the patients I care for at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Nationally, a whopping two-thirds of Americans lack them. But this holiday season, it’s my hope to start to change those odds.

Advance directives are formal declarations of your last wishes, should the unthinkable — a fall, stroke, car accident, aneurysm, heart attack, or other incapacitating event — befall you. They explicitly lay out the extent to which you want lifesaving measures (breathing and feeding tubes, resuscitation if your heart stops, and the like) when other remedies won’t improve your odds of survival; or when, as with Louisa, there isn’t anything more than can be done and you will likely face your remaining days in an unconscious, possibly vegetative state.

In my practice as a palliative care nurse practitioner, in my classes teaching nursing and medical students, and even when I share meals with friends, I often work advance directives into the conversation. Some people twist in their seats, fumbling through their answers, while others are curious and upfront about what they do and don’t know. Still, I press.

I keep a stack of “Five Wishes” worksheets — a simple pen and paper guide to creating an official advance directive — in my office, car, briefcase, even in the guest rooms of my home (Harvard Health Publications, AARP, and others also offer them). And if I don’t have the paper copies on hand, a quick email later and my friend, colleague, student, patient, or family member has what’s needed to get started.

Advance directives get a lot of bad press for being macabre. But I urge you to think of them as love letters to the people you adore. In these documents, you define your last wishes, set parameters for care, and help those who will be caring for you make decisions based on what you want and, just as important, what you don’t want, when curative treatments are off the table.

These love letters safeguard those thrust into the difficult position of making medical decisions for you — some about life and death — so they don’t have to be guided only by well-meaning strangers like me, as Louisa’s family and countless others have had to do.

Advance directives are easy. They don’t take long to complete. Anyone can create them.

As families gather for the holidays, fretting about food, finances, gift giving, politics, and more, I urge them to ask everyone around the holiday table — middle-aged, old, young at heart, and everywhere in between — the following questions. (They’re the same ones I ask my patients who find themselves at various stages in the trajectory of life-limiting illnesses, bringing into razor-sharp focus what matters in the time they have left.)

  • What would you want done for you if the unthinkable happened — like a catastrophic fall or a major stroke — and treatment options are limited?
  • Would you want every medical intervention, or only some?
  • Do you want to die in a hospital or, if it’s possible, at home?
  • Are there things undone you wish to tend to, people you want to see, and things you want to say?
  • Are there things you fear, wonder, or wish for?
  • Essentially, what really matters to you?
  •  
    When death is imminent, perhaps a matter of days or weeks, patients I’ve had the privilege of caring for often want to leave the hospital and spend their final days in a favorite chair, with a favorite pet, satisfied by favorite meals in the comfort of their own home. Others wish to express their love and gratitude for those around them, imparting last thoughts with purpose, dignity, and humanity. Some want to connect with a loved one with whom they’ve sparred.

    To do any of this, they need to declare their intent.

    No one needs to wait until death is near to understand or crystallize their last wishes. There’s no time like the present — and no time like the holidays, when family and friends gather — to ask those you love, as well as yourself, about what they want the end of their life to look like, no matter whether that day seems far away or if it might be closer.

    The only way to find out is to ask.

End Of Life Planning:

It Won’t Kill You

By Sara Zeff Geber

If you are over 50 and reading this, you have probably done some end-of-life planning. No? Time to get to work. You made a will 15 years ago? Not good enough. If you haven’t done anything or haven’t reviewed your planning in over five years, read on.

The key components of end-of-life planning are:

  • A will
  • A power-of-attorney for finances
  • A power-of-attorney for health care
  • An advance directive for health care
  • A trust for your assets

I am not an attorney, so I am not going to go into any depth about these legal documents. My intention is to rouse your interest in doing end-of-life planning by telling you about some novel and inventive ways to enhance it. So, even if you have done the basic planning with your estate attorney and have the documents on record, there are some new and interesting twists today that you may want to know about.

Traditionally, when the topic of end-of life planning comes up, the first item that comes to mind for most people is a will. If you are just beginning this journey a will is a good place to start and you may not need an estate planning attorney to take this first step. There are a number of online tools today for building a will, and some of them are so robust you may only need a couple of witnesses rather than an attorney.

FreeWill.com is one of the newest players in this space. Founded at Stanford University and launched in 2017, FreeWill (in the company’s description) “provides high-quality, intuitive online estate planning tools at no cost to the consumer.”  The founders, Patrick Schmitt and Jenny Xia, are young entrepreneurs with experience in finance and technology.

Several years ago, Patrick, who has a background in nonprofit fundraising and technology for social impact, was about to travel to areas that were not particularly safe for Americans. He decided the prudent thing would be to make a will. In doing so, he discovered that the process was more complicated and difficult than it needed to be, especially if one wanted to include any kind of planned giving to a non-profit. That event became the impetus for starting his company, FreeWill.com.

FreeWill strongly supports the inclusion of planned giving and it is built in to their will-creation software. Through their own research, they have discovered that single people are more than twice as generous as any other group when writing a will and single people who choose to leave a bequest are the most generous (2.5 times more than married people). FreeWill reaches out to singles through their marketing and because I often write about solo agers they reached out to me to help them spread the word.

I tried the online will creation form and discovered it to be very simple and straightforward. It took me less than the 20 minutes they suggest. Once I had completed the online form, I had the option to print it. Printing is necessary because for a will to be legally binding it must be signed by the principal and also by two witnesses. Then it can be kept stored in a safe place, including cloud storage. For larger, more complex estates, FreeWill suggests pairing the effort with a visit to an attorney and they provide the forms for doing just that. FreeWill will be rolling out additional end-of-life forms. A health care directive and a durable power-of-attorney are in the works.

An often-overlooked piece of end-of-life planning is the disposition of your remains after you have passed. I think many people have an even harder time facing this question when they are still healthy and strong, but making these plans ahead of time is one of the kindest gestures you can make for the loved ones you leave behind.

When I was still in my teens, my divorced father, age 55, purchased a burial plot and picked out a casket. He wanted to take me to see the burial park and the plot. I resisted, but he eventually wore me down and we went to visit the cemetery. About 15 years later, he created very specific plans for where he wanted his memorial service and who should be invited. Again, I resisted his efforts to share these plans with me, but he insisted. In addition to telling me, in great detail, what he had in mind for the burial service and the memorial, he also showed me where he kept all his important papers and took me to the bank to show me how to open the safe-deposit box where he kept some gold coins and other valuables.

It upset me to think about him dying; he wasn’t sick at the time and I couldn’t figure out why he was making all these seemingly-premature plans. Of course, years later he did die and it was fairly sudden. Amidst the shock of his passing I realized I did not have to make any decisions; all I had to do was put his plans in motion. It was the greatest gift he could have given me.

My father chose to be buried.  Now, thirty years later, my husband and I have chosen cremation and having our ashes scattered at sea near our Northern California home. The Neptune Society and the Trident Society (both subsidiaries of Service Corporation International) have pre-need programs for cremation. There are other cremation programs, but these two have been around the longest and that seemed important for a decision like this. They both have 5-year financing plans and other payment options.

There is also a green burial option today that may be appealing to you if you are concerned about traditional burial’s impact on the environment and use of open space.

As with so many later-life concerns, baby boomers are changing the landscape at the end of life. I think we can expect to see many more new concepts arise in the next two decades as this large population cohort enters the final decades of life.

Complete Article HERE!