Why should I discuss end of life decisions with my loved ones now?

By: Amy Shaffer

Nineteen years ago my dad, Mike Poly was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.  He was 50 years old-just a year older than I am now.  This was a man who was still playing softball with his friends and open gym basketball with the kids at Bishop Ready High School in Columbus, Ohio. We were in obvious shock when he was diagnosed. Thinking of life without him was unfathomable; but thinking of what was in store the next 8 months wasn’t even on our radar.

The first few months flew by as Dad had surgery and began radiation treatment.  My dad, my sister and I celebrated our “triple birthday” together (sadly, it would be our last).  He loved the beach, so he went three times that summer. We also made a trip to Keuka Lake, New York for a family wedding.  He even went to the Ohio State Fair about five times that year (he loved his corn, steak on a stick and lemon shake ups!).  Although his medical team was very honest with us about his prognosis, we still had hope because he was continuing to do the things he loved.

Mom and Dad had never had a reason to establish power of attorney, create a living will or elect a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order before now.  But just a few short months after his diagnoses, we were faced with these questions of his wishes. The social worker at Mt. Carmel first broached the subject of advanced directives with my parents while my dad was hospitalized for pain management.  She talked with them about a DNR and end of life decisions.  He was only 51 at this point; how could he and my mom even think about whether or not he wanted resuscitated?  As the cancer was ravaging his body, we began to learn the benefits of having advanced directives in place; about how important it was to know what dad wanted at the end of his life; about how we should carry out his choices; about what a gift it truly is to be reassured with these difficult decisions that we were doing what he wanted; we were honoring his wishes. Once we understood, it became a little easier.

But for many families, it’s not always as clear.  Our loved ones may live full, healthy lives, so we don’t think about what might happen if one day they can’t express their wishes. Or perhaps they have always refused to think or plan for their future, for fear of the unknown.  Most people think they have taken care of everything because they have a will or a pre-paid funeral plan, but never really face the reality of what may happen between now and when they pass away. My experience with my father as well as working in the healthcare and long term care industry has given me special insight.  I have shared the journey so many families are faced with.  I have witnessed the slow deterioration of our brains and bodies from a long term illness like dementia or Parkinson’s.  I have watched families face the difficult decisions of initiating or withholding life-sustaining treatment.  I have also witnessed acute, life threatening events like a stroke or heart attack when the decision for heroic, life-sustaining treatment must be made in a moment of anguish.

Please consider discussing advance directives and end of life decisions with your partner, your parents and your closest friends.  Encourage them to communicate their choices and urge them to put a legal document like a power of attorney, a living will and/or a DNR into place.  Then, have that courageous conversation with your kids and let them know your wishes.  There is no gift more valuable than to make your choices known so that your loved ones aren’t left to these difficult decisions in a time of crisis.