April 14, 2011

Maine Voices: Take the chance to have one of the most important conversations of your life

National Healthcare Decisions Day reminds us to make painful choices sooner rather than later.

AUGUSTA – "We never talked about it" is one of the most painful and challenging phrases anyone may ever have to say. As a physician who cares for those approaching the end-of-life, this commonly uttered regret saddens me.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Elizabeth Balsam Hart is medical director of the “Cultivating Meaningful Conversations to Guide Care” project of the Maine Hospice Council and Center for End-of-life Care.

Recently, Marie, a 94-year-old woman with advanced dementia, moved to a long-term care facility in central Maine and became very ill shortly after her arrival. She did not have a written advance directive and we had not yet met with her family to discuss their understanding of her preferences concerning life-prolonging interventions.

Her family's hearts were heavy with grief at her decline and their minds were blurry from the exhaustion of journeying with her through yet another health care crisis. When we asked about her wishes, they shook their heads and said, "We never talked about it."

They didn't know what she would want. They struggled to remember anything Marie had said before she lost her ability to communicate that would shed light on her wishes, so they could tell us if she would want to be transferred to the hospital or, if indicated, to the intensive care unit where she might be put on a ventilator.

They pondered whether, given her values, she would instead prefer "comfort-focused care," which would relieve her symptoms and allow her to remain in her new home, but might not prolong her life. They regretted that they had never discussed what now seemed so important.

National Healthcare Decisions Day, on Saturday, offers a reminder to have essential conversations with our loved ones and our health care providers so they will know our wishes and be able to honor them when the day comes when each of us inevitably faces life's final chapter.

PATH TO NICER MEMORIES

Most of us carry with us the story of the death of someone we loved and the memory of the difficult decisions that arose when grief and loss made calm reflection about goals of care even more challenging than those same decisions would be in a less urgent moment.

Unfortunately, as we approach the end-of-life, we often lose our ability to communicate our wishes to those caring for us. It is essential that if we want to guide these deeply personal decisions and ensure that the care we receive is based on our own individual values, we must have meaningful conversations in advance, while we are able, and document our decisions so our wishes can be respected.

"How people die remains in the memories of those who live on," said Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement. We owe it to ourselves and to our families to make sure that those who will be involved in our care at the end of our lives know what medical interventions we would want.

Advance care planning gives all adults the potential to reflect upon, communicate and document our future health care wishes.

Advance directives are the documents that allow each of us to specify the types of medical interventions that we do and do not want and to name an "agent" who understands our goals and values and could speak on our behalf if we lose that ability.

HELPFUL SUGGESTIONS

Having a reflective conversation about your goals of care and then documenting your wishes in a written advance directive allows you to choose from options which range from full aggressive medical interventions, which attempt to prolong life, to focusing on comfort and relief of suffering.

Appointing a health care "agent" who understands your wishes and is willing to speak on your behalf is often the most flexible model, as we cannot anticipate every situation that may arise.

Some questions to consider include:

"What would help bring joy and meaning into your life if you faced a terminal illness?"

"What quality of life would you find acceptable or unacceptable?"

"Under what circumstances would you want the goals of your care to shift from prolonging life to focusing on comfort?"

n "If you faced a terminal illness and treatment does not go as we hope, what is most important to you?"

"In what setting (where) would you like to die?"

This year on National Healthcare Decisions Day, or whatever day you choose, please join people throughout the country and take the time to learn about advance directives, reflect upon your goals of care, talk with those who need to understand what you would want and document your wishes in a written advance directive. To learn more, visit www.nhdd.org

- Special to The Press Herald

 

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