Last night Rock Center with Brian Williams aired a very powerful piece about a tough subject: Talking about dying in order to improve end-of-life.
The story showed how having difficult, open conversations about end-of-life choices and putting a proper advance directive in place can have a huge impact on the emotional (and financial) stresses a family faces as the end approaches. They highlighted Gundersen Lutheran Hospital in Wisconsin, "considered by many healthcare experts to be the best place to die in America," and its commitment to helping families really understand what their options are at the end. Through caring conversations with nurse practitioners, the hospital enables patients to come to terms with their health situations, get in touch with their wishes about how far to take the fight, and make decisions that will ultimately preserve personal dignity.
The segment was hard to watch—both uplifting and depressing at the same time. I was struck by how lucky the people in the piece were to have access to such supportive and knowledgeable resources to help them through these decisions. Most people will never be guided through these end-of-life choices by a caring expert. Even though expert guidance isn't necessary to create an advance directive, this segment really brought home the positive impact that this kind of support can have.
My wife and I are fortunate enough to have advance directives in place, but we created them as part of a bundle of other legal paperwork given to us by our estate attorney as we completed our wills. We knew the decisions we made in our living will were important, but we didn't have context around these choices, and so we guessed at what we wanted and completed the forms without conviction.
It's one of our goals at Everplans to help people deal with end-of-life issues, especially those people without access to end-of-life experts. We want to help people understand advance directives and find resources that can help them have the difficult conversations early enough to make a difference at the end. Though every state has its own advance directive forms, we think one of the best organizations out there is Aging with Dignity, which publishes a form called Five Wishes. Unlike most state advance directive forms, Five Wishes uses plain, easy-to-understand language to help people make important decisions about the way they would like medical care handled when they approach the end of life.