Estate planning attorneys have the opportunity to speak to people at all stages of life. Some of the most profound conversations we have are with clients who have serious illnesses or are close to death. They often have great clarity about life and what is important. Many of them also have definite thoughts about how they wish to be cared for at the end of their lives, and care deeply that their wishes are heard and carried out.
We all have the right to make our wishes known about the type of end-of-life care we want. Making your wishes known while you are well is important as an accident or an unexpected illness may cause you to lose the ability to express your care preferences. This April marks the 10th anniversary of National Healthcare Decisions Day. Here are five ways you can ensure your care preferences are clearly documented and honored:
- Create a Health Care Proxy. If you are over the age of 18, make sure you have signed a Health Care Proxy that designates a person you choose (your Health Care Agent) to make health care decisions for you if you become unable to make or communicate your own health care decisions. Give your doctor and your Health Care Agent a copy of your Proxy. Then, have a conversation with your Health Care Agent about your feelings about health care and the type of care you would want in certain situations. See No. 5 below for some resources to get you started. If you are hospitalized, remember to bring your Health Care Proxy with you to the hospital. This will ensure you are not asked to sign another Proxy that will revoke the Proxy you currently have in place and that may not be as comprehensive.
- Assemble a Care Committee. For those who have very definite ideas about where and how they wish to be cared for, consider assembling a Care Committee to ensure your care wishes will be carried out, particularly if you have a chronic illness. This group may consist of your Health Care Agent, a professional care manager, your attorney, your physician, the person you have named to make financial decisions for you if you are incapacitated, and perhaps your financial advisor. Choose the participants, have discussions with them about your care preferences, and develop a plan that is financially realistic. Have a discussion with your Care Committee periodically to modify the plan as your needs and wishes change. Think of your Care Committee as a team that can help your Health Care Agent carry out your wishes as necessary.
- Sign a Living Will. There are many advance directives that can be used by clients to express care preferences. A Living Will typically expresses a general preference that no extraordinary measures be used at the end of life. In Massachusetts, Living Wills are not legally binding, and your physicians will not act based upon your Living Will (only at the direction of your Health Care Agent). However, a Living Will can serve as evidence of your wishes that will guide your Health Care Agent in making decisions about end-of-life care.
- Advance Medical Directives. A Medical Directive can be used to express care preferences in specific medical situations. Do Not Resuscitate or Do Not Intubate orders are medical orders that a doctor will put in place at a patient or Health Care Agent’s direction in appropriate circumstances. In Massachusetts, a MOLST (Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) form is a useful document created by patient and doctor together that includes medical orders for care preferences, including resuscitation, ventilation, intubation, dialysis, artificial nutrition and hydration, and whether or not you should be transferred to a hospital. This initiative is known as POLST (Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) on a national level.
- Use the Available Tools. There are many Massachusetts and national organizations working to increase awareness of the value of advance care planning and to encourage people to express their care preferences. The Massachusetts Coalition for Serious Illness Care and related organizations have designated April as Massachusetts Healthcare Decisions Month, and has tools and resources on its website. Honoring Choices is another Massachusetts organization bringing information about health care decision-making and outreach to many local communities, as well as helping people to create a Health Care Proxy and express their health care preferences. The Conversation Project is dedicated to making it easier for people to talk about their wishes for end-of-life care. Both Honoring Choices and The Conversation Project have starter kits on their websites that make it easy to get started.
As part of Healthcare Decisions Month, several Boston-area organizations will also be hosting Before I Die, a global public art project that invites people to share their personal aspirations in public, reflect on what’s most important to them in life and how they contemplate death. Use whatever tool or inspiration works for you, and find a way to express your wishes about end-of-life care to the people who will make those decisions for you.