Rev. Eric J. Hall is the president and CEO of HealthCare Chaplaincy Network and a member of the Academy’s Age-friendly New York City Commission.
Most of us easily talk about our wishes related to the good things in life: a wish for a child to be the first family member to graduate college, for a granddaughter to marry the love of her life, for yourself to rise in your career and make an impact on health care, the environment, or whatever your passion is. While we may not shout these aspirations from the rooftops, typically we don’t keep them to ourselves either.
Why, then, are so many of us silent when it comes to relaying our wishes about the harsher side of life: sickness, death and dying? This is a silence that can cause unnecessary pain … a silence that can come back to haunt us and our loved ones … a silence that restricts your voice from being heard when it needs to be heard the most.
I’m sure we all know of situations like this. A husband emerges from an unsuccessful surgery, with feeding tubes and breathing tubes, and a distraught wife has no idea if this is how he would want to continue living. A grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease never expressed her care preferences when cognitively able. Or a single father codes after a car accident, leaving his children with no idea whether he would want to be resuscitated.
April 16, 2016 is National Healthcare Decisions Day—a day to shine the spotlight on the value of advance health care planning. It’s all about inspiring, educating and empowering the public and providers about the importance of advance care planning. It’s about giving thought to important choices -- from stating the type of care you want or don’t want, to appointing someone to make medical decisions for you, to drawing up a will. It’s about getting input, if desired, from loved ones, clergy, health care chaplains, doctors, elder law attorneys, and others.
But most of all it’s about taking a deep look at your beliefs, your values, your goals, your priorities—and shaping your health care decisions accordingly. Ultimately, what do you want when you’re ill or nearing death? I remember one bereaved caregiver after struggling with her spouse’s decision to stop intensive cancer treatments declaring that it all comes down to this: “It’s the patient choice. It’s the patient’s decision.” That’s what advance planning does—it gives the patient the choice, the decision, and it gives loved ones the knowledge for them and health care providers to honor those wishes.
This isn’t the kind of conversation you normally have over a bowl of pasta or chicken soup. It’s likely not in your comfort zone. But it’s the very kitchen table discussion everyone should have in advance of a crisis. It’s never too early to talk about treatment and care plans. It’s never too early to think about what you want at the end of life. It’s never too early to prepare essential legal and financial documents. These are authentic conversations. They are not only practical; they can be emotionally and spiritually healing. As one estate attorney said, “It will give you peace of mind, and you’re giving your family a gift by making your wishes known to them in advance. “
I recall one elderly congregant who gave her family such a gift. She always told her children she didn’t want them to see her suffer at the end, like she had witnessed with her own mother. She tasked her son with making sure she would not be kept alive artificially, and she provided her daughter with the precise financial and funeral information. Every six months or so, this mom would remind her kids where she had her advance care documents—in the metal box in the back of her clothes closet. Despite the pain of their mother’s death, her children felt blessed that their mom’s candor and preparedness eased the stress and potential for family strive -and enabled her to die with dignity.
On April 16, National Healthcare Decisions Day, or any day, make your voice heard. Just like our choices define our life, just like we want quality of life, our choices can define our death and give us quality of death – on our terms.