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Why you need an advance directive and will

By Seanna O'Sullivan
Board President, Foundation
for End of Life Care

Most of us move through life knowing exactly what we want. In this country, we are accustomed to having the freedom to make choices about how we live. The recent pandemic and sudden restrictions on the most basic daily routines highlighted the significance of that freedom and the mental and emotional impact of having it taken away.

Yet we often leave decisions about the moments before we breathe our last breath in the hands of others, without a hint of what we might want for ourselves. It isn't a surprise that a culture that celebrates youth and vitality often steers clear of thinking about death.

The Foundation for End of Life Care hopes to change that. Its mission is to support end-of-life care services, particularly hospice, bereavement support, and community awareness and education about end- of-life care options.

My husband was an active, strong and healthy 47-year-old and the father of three young daughters when a sudden seizure led to a brain cancer (terminal glioblastoma) diagnosis. Processing the reality of our situation and trying to make the most of our last moments together while navigating overwhelming medical decisions under incredible duress is something I don't wish on anyone.

That is why I joined the volunteer board of the Foundation for End of Life Care. While I credit our entire community for carrying my family through my husband's nine-month illness, I hope the foundation's efforts to normalize death and loss might help better prepare others.

How to get started

Vance Sanders, one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southeast Alaska, says the first step is an advance directive—a document that outlines the medical decisions you would want made and who can make them for you should you be unable to communicate.

"This is a really important role," says Sanders. "This person has an incredible ability to affect major decisions for your health care."

Be very clear about your expectations, and add any level of detailed instructions to your directive about what you want done or not done for you. Make sure you check the box to indicate the directive is effective immediately and get your document notarized. Provide copies of your directive to all of your medical providers, including Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Some people want to have their life prolonged as long as they are not in pain. Some don't want food or hydration if there is no possibility of recovery. Some want as much time as possible to be with loved ones if they are lucid. If there is something you feel strongly about, don't be limited by the lines on a form—add pages and share as much as you would like.

Taking the next step

The next step is to be sure you have a will in place before you die. A will is a gift for loved ones to sort out your belongings and make decisions about your estate. Without a will, assets can be locked in a lengthy legal process or go unclaimed. Your loved ones could be managing paperwork for months, or even years, after you're gone. A will also allows you to designate gifts to charity, which can't happen without one.

Why a will? Mainly to keep your family out of conflict, which can happen no matter the size of your estate. Blended families can complicate that process.

A will can be as simple as a handwritten letter signed by the testator and at least two other individuals. Getting it notarized ensures it is valid and recognized legally. It is important to have at least one original will on file at the courthouse as well.

It can be so easy to wait until tomorrow to make a will, but without one you are giving up control of everything you worked so hard to create.

Other options to consider

You may have other documents to protect your assets after death. For example:

  • A transfer on death deed can expedite the process of transferring your property after your death to someone you choose.
  • A trust controls how and when your property is distributed and, if properly set up while you are living, can expedite the process for your loved ones.

Planning for the end of life means that you and those you care about do not have to make hard decisions in difficult times. It allows you to focus on what matters most—living.

Help with end-of-life care decisions

There are resources available to help explain the options for making your future health care decisions.

Here are a few:

Having the Last Word: Advanced Directives and Wills: A guided conversation, led by attorneys Liz Smith and Vance Sanders and hosted by the Foundation for End of Life Care, outlining the beginning steps of creating a plan, should you be unable to communicate your wishes before you die. They encourage people of all ages to think about how they might want to live their last days. Watch it at foundationforendoflifecare.org.

When You’re Not There: A book, co-authored by fellow board member Hal Geiger (who also serves on the Bartlett Board of Directors), providing guidance with estate planning, what to do when there is a death in the family, how to cope with grief and how to prepare for loss. Virginia Palmer, recently named Person of the Year by the Foundation for End of Life Care, authored the first edition of the planning guide published by the organization. A second edition was published last year. The book is funded through donations to the foundation and offered for free on its website or for purchase at Hearthside Books or the Bartlett gift shop.

Next steps

You can submit copies of your advance directive to Bartlett Regional Hospital directly to Medical Records. Call Patient Access Services at 907.796.8900 and ask for Medical Records for more information.

Bartlett Regional Hospital encourages you to submit your completed advance directive to the U.S. Living Will Registry/Advance Care Plan Registry (USACPR) as well. It’s a secure, online database where your document can be easily accessed by you or by health care providers anywhere.

Upon registration and the creation of your account, you’ll be mailed labels for your ID and insurance card and a wallet card that can be presented to any facility. You can access and make changes to your personal information and download, fax or email your document as needed.

Act now!

Register for $40—a $20 discount through Bartlett’s partnership with USACPR—at usacpr.net. Contact BRH Medical Records for the discount code. You can also find more resources at foundationforendoflifecareak.org.

Categories: Well-being

Have a plan

Find details on free upcoming events at Foundation for End of Life Care (foundation
forendoflifecareak.org), and learn more about your legal options at the Alaska Court System website (courts.alaska.gov).