Health: Rules to Live (And Die) By (Good info on making a living will)
By Anna Kuchment and Eve Conant
NewsweekApril 4 issue - Mary Sherry-Connolly, 62, had been meaning to write a living will for the past seven years. But it wasn't until the Terri Schiavo case made headlines last week that she finally picked up the phone and called her attorney. "I thought, 'I'd better get my tail in there'," she says. "I wanted to make things easy for my children."
Those sentiments echoed across the country last week, as Americans mobbed lawyers' offices and strained Web servers to educate themselves about living wills. Some sites, like myhealthdirective.com, saw traffic jump as much as fortyfold.
Still, most people remain in the dark about so-called health-care advance directives. That formal term comprises two documents: the living will, which lays out your treatment preferences, and the durable power of attorney for health care, which designates a proxyâ€”a person to speak for you should you become incapacitated. Though either one of these can stand on its own, lawyers say a living will alone is limited in what it can do. "It's hard to predict different medical scenarios," says Joseph Barmakian, founder of uslivingwillregistry.com. Though you don't need a lawyer, you can find ones who specialize in elder law at naela.org.
How do you get started? The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization's caringinfo.org has state-specific forms, and patients can also call the organization's hot line (800-658-8898) for more information. The American Bar Association's abalaw info.org and the Center for Practical Bioethics at midbio.org offer detailed tools to help with decision-making.
Next, talk to your family. Most states recommend that patients designate a primary proxy as well as an alternate. The decision can be difficult. "It should be someone who understands your wishes and can deal with sometimes-difficult family dynamics and resistance from the health profession," says Charles Sabatino, assistant director of the ABA's commission on law and aging. J. D. Secession, 57, designated his wife before having open-heart surgery earlier this year. "I didn't want to take a chance of an ex-wife or a cousin who didn't know anything about me coming in and orchestrating how things should go," he says.
After you fill out your forms, give copies to your family and to your doctor. Sabatino recommends updating them each time you hit one of "the four D's": a new decade of life, the death of a loved one, divorce, a bad diagnosis or a decline in your health.
Finally, you don't have to be against life support to fill out a living will. The National Right to Life Committee (nrlc.org) has a "Will to Live" that tells doctors to supply food, water and lifesaving treatment except in specific circumstances.
Sherry-Connolly, a eucharistic minister who once sneaked a Coke into her dying mother's room to keep her alive against doctors' orders, is still wrestling with many of these issues. Instead of filling out a living will, she decided to designate her adult son and daughter as proxies. "They're such good kids," she says. "They'll do right by me."