The Importance of a Living Will
By Kathy Dorminey
WHY SHOULD YOU HAVE A LIVING WILL?
A living will, or advance directives lay out what medical treatments and interventions you do and do not wish in the case that you are incapacitated. The consequences of not having one can be that the next of kin will be called on to make health decisions for you with little to no input from you. This may cause unnecessary distress for yourself and for the relative who ends up making such important calls.
WHAT CAN HAPPEN IF YOU DON’T HAVE ONE?
In 2002 my father had a major hemorrhagic stroke affecting the left side of his body. He was intubated and kept in a medically induced coma. I had not spoken with my father in seven years when I was called upon as the oldest child to make crucial medical decisions not knowing what his wishes may have been. We’d never had this conversation and were estranged. I was called on to decide if he should have a feeding tube and to decide if a tube should be placed to drain the bleed from his brain to his stomach. I was called on to give permission for HIV testing and release of results when a nurse was stuck by a needle during one of these procedures. You see, my father was fighting against these procedures while in a state of mind such that he was considered incapacitated.
After a month-long hospital stay and a month-long rehabilitation center stay, he was transferred to a nursing home where over the next year he had the feeding tube removed and learned to swallow and to walk again. My father later made it clear that he would have wished for none of the procedures that saved his life. Neither I nor his physicians had any way to know this at the time of the decisions.
My father went on to live another eleven years after his stroke and I don’t regret the decisions made because ultimately they led to a renewed relationship with him. However, I’ve had to struggle with knowing that these were decisions he would not have made for himself.
My advice is to have the difficult conversations. Take the time and execute a living will. For your peace of mind and that of those who care about you.
THE CONVERSATION PROJECT
The Conversation Project is a public engagement initiative whose goal is for every person’s wishes for end-of-life care to be expressed and respected. At the link below, they have conversation starter kits (in 13 languages). Additionally, the kit is available in an audio version. There is a kit specifically for families of people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The site also has stories from others who’ve chosen to have the conversation telling how they approached it. One individual held a potluck and invited friends and an expert in advance care directives (living wills) to attend and educate the group.