Jane Brody wrote about advance care planning in a recent New York Times article and directed people to Compassion & Choices for our free Good to Go Guide. Our phones have never been busier. Everyone here has dropped their usual duties to answer calls and send materials to people all over the country. In just a few hours we counted 600 requests by telephone. Even greater numbers of people downloaded the documents directly from the website.
What's the reason for this enormous demand? Once again, we see the simple, overwhelming desire of people everywhere to chart their own course as the end of their lives comes into view. A person's last days may still be off in the distant horizon, but the yearning for a death that honors the life and the determination to remain a free person is palpable when thoughts turn to life's end.
Ms. Brody suggested that people complete two documents. One is a Living Will to document your wishes. The other designates your Health Care Agent, the person who will carry out your wishes with concrete decisions about procedures or treatments if you become unable to speak for yourself. The documents work in concert, and sailing forth with only one means you're boat is inherently leaky.
A Living Will alone is incomplete. It needs a designated agent: A specific person you charge to negotiate the death you feel fits the values and beliefs of a lifetime. It's important to name this person and, more importantly, talk with this person, preferably with other loved ones present. They will be able to confirm and validate future decisions so the agent doesn't bear sole weight of responsibility.
A designated Health Care Agent (or proxy) needs a Living Will as firm, undeniable evidence of your choices. Let's face it; doctors may apply enormous pressure to accept tests and burdensome treatments with extremely low chance of recovery or substantial improvement. Your Health Care Agent will need the strength of documentation to say with conviction, "I'm sure my dad would not want that, if there's no chance he'll return to a functioning life."
I don't think most doctors fully realize how deeply people care that their ideas and their principles, govern their end-of-life decisions. Doctors seem to think what matters most to people is how many days they exist on this planet.
No, doctors. For most people, it is not how long our days measure, but the measure of our days that grips our minds in the quiet moments of dawn. When we awaken early and thankfully greet another day, we nod to our acknowledged mortality and comfort ourselves with one hope: that our deaths will be on our own terms, in full expression of who we are and the life we lived.