Donna Creasy knew it was time to get her affairs in order when she realized that the last time she updated her will, her children were still in school.
“They’re in their 40s now, they won’t be needing guardians,” the 74-year-old said, laughing. “I started thinking about how ill-prepared we are for our last days. I knew we would grow old, but I never knew we’d get so decrepit.”
She’s made it her mission to assemble all the information, in one notebook, that her family will need. The paperwork includes insurance policies and investments, credit card accounts and how to cancel them—and after a session on Monday—the wishes she and her husband, Jack, have for their end-of-life care.
Mary Washington Healthcare held an event on National Healthcare Decisions Day to give people the necessary tools to make advance directives, legal documents that spell out what kind of care they want—or don’t want—as their days dwindle.
Creasy, who lives in Caroline County, will discuss what she learned about preparing a directive with her husband, who has cancer. When they sign the form in front of two witnesses, it will become valid. Both want to donate whatever organs can be used by others and their bodies for research. The Creasys will leave the medical decisions in their last days to their daughter, a doctor.
Many people don’t have a mechanism in place that spells out that they want to donate organs or spend their final days at home instead of a facility. When there are several adult children in the mix who disagree about how things should proceed, “it can be messy at times,” said Michael Newby, a lawyer with Hancock, Daniel, Johnson & Nagle.
Having an directive, or living will, allows people to make decisions about their medical care while they’re able, Newby said. It ensures their wishes will be honored, “and it makes it a whole heck of a lot easier on your loved ones, too,” he added.
Maxwell Johnson, 72, realized that after recent experiences. He was hospitalized in the fall for alcohol poisoning, which eventually led to recovery and support meetings. But during his hospitalization, he was asked what provisions he had in place for end-of-life care and admitted he had none.
Then, his brother died, and his brother’s children asked Johnson if he knew their father’s wishes for things such as his burial.
“I did not have a clue because we never talked about it,” Johnson said. “We had been business partners when we were younger, but we didn’t discuss it then.”
Up to 90 percent of people say that talking with their loved ones about end-of-life decisions is important, but less than one-third of them actually do it, according to a 2013 survey by The Conversation Project. Terri McAuliff with Mary Washington Hospice said the group’s aim is to get people to discuss the difficult topic of what care they want in their final days.
She applauded the decision by former First Lady Barbara Bush to focus on “comfort care,” or staying comfortable during her final days instead of returning to the hospital for life-prolonging measures.
Bush, 92 and in failing health, has taken control of her care, McAuliff said, by deciding she’d rather be at home “holding George’s hand.”
McAuliff and others with the project encourage people to start a conversation with their loved ones about what matters most at the end of life. The group’s starter kit includes four steps to help people get the conversation started as well as some simple questions to stimulate ideas. The kit is available online at theconversatonproject.org.
While most of the 25 people at Monday’s session were near or past retirement age, Tammy Ruiz–Ziegler pointed out that death can come at any time. She was 47 when her husband died, a year after she’d become a grandmother.
Her husband wasn’t feeling well one Friday, and by the next day, he was dead from septic shock.
She’s the perinatal bereavement coordinator for Mary Washington Healthcare, and her experience taught her that no one is guaranteed the gift of time.
Like McAuliff, Ruiz–Ziegler encourages people to have conversations while they’re able and stresses that couples don’t have to have the same plan. She’s remarried, and she and her husband have opposite wishes.
He’s a retired Air Force colonel who wants “no stone left unturned” in terms of medical treatments while she wants only comfort care, the same as Barbara Bush. Each knows the other’s wishes, as do their children, she said.
“I love this whole movement in terms of giving people power in their end-of-life decisions,” she said.