Several months ago, at a time of relative innocence, we were only thinking about one pandemic. Then, with the murder of George Floyd, the world erupted and a second pandemic - racism - became much more clear. (See my last newsletter)
Having read this article several months ago, I had planned to write a newsletter about it then, but the news of the day was much more important. Circling back, I want to reconsider the article, and how poorly prepared most of us are for end of life care.
Fearing COVID-19, and ventilators, older people alter their living wills
By Judith Graham - The Washington Post / Seattle Times
COVID-19 has thrust this knowledge into our collective consciousness, and has helped some people make decisions for themselves that they had not done previously. In the last month alone, I have had 2 people in my life about to undergo surgery who were unprepared for end of life decisions. They had no healthcare power of attorney, no durable power of attorney for finances, and one of them had no advanced directive accessible to anyone who might need to see it.
I now ask: What if you got COVID-19 and had to be on a ventilator? Would you want that? Have you confided to anyone close to you about what your decision would be?
Most of us are going to answer no.
Until approximately 5 years ago, I thought that the way my family had dealt with end of life planning was normal (I can hear my siblings laughing to think I believed anything our family did was “normal”).
Most interesting of all, I remember when I was in high school, my parents would sit us down around the dining room table to discuss what each of us three kids would get when they died. (My poor brother, being 6 years younger than me, got the short end of the stick.) Eight years later we sat down and repeated this discussion when we were all more mature. It did not feel morbid or scary, it was just normal.
I have since learned that this is unusual. What it did for me was to make the subject of end of life not scary. My husband’s story is 180 degrees from mine.
When my husband's father died prematurely and unexpectedly, there was nothing in place to guide the family, including no life insurance. Now that is scary. Thankfully, it made him proactive as opposed to avoiding the topic altogether.
Now that we are all faced with the possibility of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of how we will fare with this disease, I would like to make some suggestions.
Here is what everyone should have in place:
In Washington, our HCPOA does not need to be notarized, although I do recommend that you take this step. If you are traveling to a state that requires notarization, you will already have it in place.
When the time came, the three of us sat on the dining room floor with all of the small items around us, drew straws for who would go first, and then picked the thing we wanted most. We did this in order until there was nothing left any of us wanted. We did not follow what was specified in the will exactly, but we were all happy with the outcome, and we knew that was the main aim of our parents.
For those with minor children, you must make a plan for who will raise your children if both parents die, and how the money will be dealt with. This requires a lawyer, and should have been done yesterday.
All of these documents should be easily accessible, and a copy should be provided to those you have designated.
Remember, if you need coaching or counseling about what to do or how to make these decisions, I am here to help.
In the meantime, stay masked, wash your hands, maintain physical distance, be kind to each other —you know the drill.
I have been thinking a lot about end of life planning. I recently started helping people with this aspect of their lives by acting as a healthcare power of attorney for those who need a non-family member in that role. And yes, I intentionally italicized "of their lives."
A good friend’s mother recently died at age 94; she was well loved by her family, and very well cared for despite living for many years disabled by a stroke. My friend and his family were able to be with her in an inpatient hospice setting, it was clear she did not want any extraordinary measures taken to prolong the inevitable, and they could sit and hold her hand as she passed. Sounds pretty ideal, right? And despite glitches along the way, it seems so.
As we were discussing it after her shiva (the Jewish period of 7 days of the acute phase of mourning—or less depending on your adherence to classic protocols), it occurred to me that there are 3 general death scenarios. The one above is the clear scenario that most of us envision as “a good death”.
Putting in Place An A-Team of Allies
by Judith Graham
Another scenario is where a family member dies suddenly, unexpectedly, and the family and friends are left in shock, having had no time to process it before it happens. Interestingly, this is not necessarily a “bad death” for the deceased, but it certainly is hard for the family.
Don't Wait: Now's the time to discuss end-of-life-care
by Robert Powell
The third general scenario is where some or all of the participants (including the “patient”) have not accepted that death is a part of life (thus the italics above). The hard discussions of what the person wants at the end of life, when they want to push on, when they want to call it quits, where they want to die, who they want with them—all of the factors that go into a “good death”—have not been discussed, or the family ignores the wishes and countermands them. Or worse, there is disagreement among family members about the treatment course.
Why you need a Healthcare Proxy and how to choose one
by Debbie Reslock
I cannot claim to have the lock on what a good death looks like to others, but I do know what can be done to lessen the stress felt by families going through this passage. In the first scenario, end of life wishes were known and discussed, and it was the end of a good long life. In the second scenario, there was likely no preparation, and nothing can mend the shock felt by the family except time. In the third scenario, there is a lot of preparation that could be done to prepare for and avoid conflict and stress.
This is why I advise everyone to have a healthcare power of attorney designated and an advance directive in place. We can make a death better for both the patient and the family if we confront this before it is needed. I have been through two of the three scenarios personally, and I vastly prefer the first one.
As spring has arrived, I have been immersed in something that involves the end of things rather than the beginning. Recently, I started a new service helping people plan for what they want at the end of their lives (i.e. helping them figure out what they want in their advance directive), while also serving as the healthcare power of attorney for those who do not have or do not want a family member to do so.
Writing this newsletter was spurred by an article I read recently by an attorney—no longer practicing—who holds the position that lawyers have no business in the field of advance care planning.
Lawyers have no business in the field of advance care planning
by Phyllis Coletta
The author of the article, Phyllis Coletta, says:
Here’s what happens when a lawyer gets involved in advance care planning: They tell you to appoint a health care agent, but don’t stress that you must talk to that person and all other loved ones about your values and range of decisions.
My ER doc friends tell me there is no document that comes close to the help of a well-informed family at the bedside.
I often tell people that I thought my family was the norm in terms of advance care planning. (Why I thought this was the case is a mystery to me!) My parents had a very thorough advance directive, which we all had copies of, and we all knew who the agents in charge were. When crises occurred, we could read the document to figure out what each parent wanted for their care. Further, my siblings and I are very close to each other and would talk frequently to ensure their needs were being met. Also, my parents had arranged for themselves financially, which reduced the burden on us as their children.
When I began researching this kind of work, I was surprised by what I found. I was astonished that potential clients did not realize that I needed to spend quite a few hours with them to get to know them, and what they would like to happen if they are unable to speak for themselves. In fact, I tell them that I am channeling them, so it is important to know who I am channeling! Isn’t that what we all want—someone who will carry out our wishes as close to what we would do for ourselves as possible?
What have I found instead?
I want to leave you with some really great resources for figuring out your or your family’s end of life decisions:
death over dinner
the conversation project
This is a conversation that does not need to be painful, sad, or morbid. It can create connection, and avoid a lot of pain in the end!
Happy spring everyone! Here in Seattle the weather is unseasonably gorgeous, and it makes everything better.
This is the last newsletter where I will focus specifically on upstreamists, and I want to do so around a theme: end of life planning. I would bet most of you don’t know that April 16th was National Healthcare Decisions Day (NHDD). From their website:
“National Healthcare Decisions Day(NHDD) exists to inspire, educate and empower the public and providers about the importance of advance care planning. NHDD is an initiative to encourage patients to express their wishes regarding healthcare and for providers and facilities to respect those wishes, whatever they may be.
The theme for 2016 is "It Always Seems Too Early, Until It’s Too Late."
"NHDD exists as a 50-state annual initiative to provide clear, concise, and consistent information on healthcare decision-making to both the public and providers/facilities through the widespread availability and dissemination of simple, free, and uniform tools (not just forms) to guide the process. NHDD entails 50 independent, but coordinated, state and local events (necessitated by the difference in state laws and dynamics) supported by a national media and public education campaign.
A key goal of NHDD is to demystify healthcare decision-making and make the topic of advance care planning inescapable. On NHDD, no one in the U.S. should be able to open a paper, watch TV, view the internet, see a physician or lawyer, or go to a healthcare facility without being confronted with the topic of advance care planning.
Among other things, NHDD helps people understand that advance healthcare decision-making includes much more than living wills; it is a process that should focus first on conversation and choosing an agent."
I am aware that it seems incredibly onerous to sit down and think about end of life planning, but there are a lot of resources out there to simplify it. In Washington State, you don’t have to have a lawyer to sign a Healthcare Power of Attorney document (aka healthcare proxy)—in fact you don’t even need a notary. You can go online, get documents, print them out, fill them in, and give them to your loved ones! Please do this for the sake of those you care about if not for yourself.
And now for the upstreamists. The people and organizations I am going to highlight are all working to make this subject accessible to everyone, not just lawyers. The goal is to change the thinking of our society that this is just not something to talk about, or that there will be time later, but rather to take action now so that your individual wishes can be known.
The first organization I want to mention is Get Your Sh*t Together, founded by Chanel Reynolds. She founded the organization after the tragic and sudden loss of her husband in my neighborhood! Here is the story from the New York Times. This is a stunning example of “it always seems too early until its too late”.
A Shocking Death, a Financial Lesson and Help for Others
by Ron Lieber
The next organization I want to feature is Death over Dinner, started by Michael Hebb, who found out about the difficulty of helping those at the end of life when he met two doctors on a train ride. The doctors were dismayed about our healthcare system and relayed this startling fact:
Nearly 75% of Americans want to die at home, yet only 25% of them do.
His organization makes it almost fun to have these conversations:
"Send an invite to loved ones, and then set the table to start talking about end-of-life care and how we want to live the final days of our lives. We'll provide the tools and tips to get the conversation started. You choose the guests and the menu, and let the conversation and the wine flow."
Michael Hebb on TEDMED ~ What Happens When Death is What's for Dinner
And finally, The Conversation Project began in 2010, when Ellen Goodman, a well known journalist, and a group of colleagues and concerned media, clergy, and medical professionals gathered to share stories of “good deaths” and “bad deaths” within their own circle of loved ones.
Over several months, a vision emerged for a grassroots public campaign spanning both traditional and new media that would change our culture. The goal: to make it easier to initiate conversations about dying, and to encourage people to talk now, and as often as necessary, so that their wishes are known when the time comes.
All of these sites have easily accessible documents for anyone to use. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Five Wishes from Aging with Dignity, a website that offers downloadable living wills that help document and describe your desires for end of life care.
If you want any more information, let me know. Your family and your doctors will thank you.
Dr. Sima Kahn muses on being a healthcare advocate, the troubles with our healthcare system, and how to advocate for ourselves.