The holidays bring us together as families and close friends. As we catch up on family news, it is an ideal time to bring up the concept of advance care planning and specifically, living wills.
In my 30 years as a hospital chaplain, the situation that continues to break my heart is to see families in conflict while a family member is lingering close to death.
The scenario might look something like this: Mama is 86 years old. She is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and has been brought to the hospital unresponsive. She is immediately placed on ventilator support. Tests show that she has suffered a major stroke. Doctors confirm that she will not recover from the stroke.
In the scenario, family members arrive at the hospital. Doctors explain to the family that the patient will not survive this medical event and is only being kept alive by ventilator support. It is determined that the patient did not have a living will.
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Two of the adult children immediately respond that “Mama would not want to be kept alive on machines.” The third child then responds, “I want everything done!” This conversation might then escalate to accusations, further disagreement and family members refusing to speak to each other. This is a heartbreaking scenario because, in fact, everyone loves Mama, but each has different reasons for their feelings.
This situation could be totally different if Mama had a living will that stated her wishes for end-of-life care. Rather than hurt feelings and angry words between family members, the family could rally around doing what Mama wanted. Evidence has shown that the presence of a living will actually reduces stress, anxiety and depression in surviving family members.
Life can change in a moment. Living wills are not just for the elderly. Advance care planning and completion of living wills are appropriate for all of us 18 years of age and older. Planning ahead is a gift to your family. Planning helps ensure that your wishes about healthcare choices are known by saying in writing what healthcare decisions you would want in various situations, and who you would want as a spokesperson. Plan ahead so your family can honor the choices you have made.
The holidays are a perfect time to have this discussion with your family. Living will documents are simple to fill out. You can find out more information and print a living will document by going to the attorney general’s page at ky.gov, and then clicking on “Living Will Packet.” Remember, completing a living will is one more loving way of taking care of your family.
Elaine F. Greer is director of Pastoral Care at Baptist Health Lexington.