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College of Human Ecology

End-of-Life drama prompts interest in options

Thursday, March 31, 2005

MANHATTAN, Kan. - Recent news coverage of the Terri Schiavo case has brought a difficult topic - preparing for the loss of health, vitality or quality of life - into the open. Everyday conversations now may include questions about living wills, a durable power of attorney for health care decisions or the differences between the two.

"Issues associated with death aren't limited to the elderly or to a particular time, place or set of circumstances," said Kerri Parsons, Kansas State University Research and Extension specialist on aging. An accident can happen to anyone at any time, said Parsons, who offered this example:

Suppose you fall down on a sidewalk and suffer irreversible brain damage on your way to or from work today. Now, ask yourself: How will you live? Have you designated a spouse, partner, family member or other responsible person to make healthcare decisions for you?

Considering end-of-life decisions and then preparing and filing a legal advance directive in the form of a living will or durable power of attorney for health care decisions before the need arises can ensure that your wishes will be respected, Parsons said.

"Doing so can spare your family from having to make difficult decisions when under great stress and eliminate disagreements," said Parsons, who explained the differences in the documents:

* A living will typically addresses the responses to a specific medical condition and may be appropriate for a person who has a terminal illness, such as a cancer patient given six months to live or other condition that will lead to a diminished capacity to make decisions. Such a document spells out measures to ease suffering or
end the effort to prolong life. A living will can be helpful in managing health care, but should not be confused with a last will and testament that prescribes the distribution of personal property. If an accident or injury should occur, emergency medical
professionals are not, however, bound by a living will.

* A Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions will give a designated person the legal power to make medical and health care decisions on behalf of another person.

It is different than a Durable Power of Attorney, which transfers the power to make financial decisions. Both documents spell out who will be responsible and when the transfer of responsibility is to occur.

* A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order is a separate order that instructs doctors, paramedics and other medical personnel how and when they should fight for your life given catastrophic circumstances, such as those that might result from an accident.

Preparing these documents does require some legal work, but the cost - usually a few hundred dollars - will clarify your wishes, Parsons said.

"It's easy to take health for granted, yet thinking about what may seem unthinkable and preparing an advance directive is a way in which an individual can protect his or her rights," Parsons said.

"To personalize a living will, durable power of attorney or DNR order and ensure validity of the documents, seeking legal counsel is recommended," said Parsons, who noted that an attorney specializing in elder law typically will be skilled in preparing advance care directives.

"Talk with your spouse, family or designated representative and ask for their support in preparing and witnessing the legal documents that will protect you and your future," said Parsons, who also advised providing a legal copy for your health care professional and one to the person designated as your durable power or attorney also
is recommended.

More information on advance directives, including living wills and durable powers of attorney is available on the Internet. The sample forms may serve as a guide in gathering information needed to begin preparation for legal documents.

Parsons suggested the following Web sites as potential sources of information:

* Kansas Life Project Web site: http://www.lifeproject.org/home.htm. Choose the tool kit introduction link.

* Kansas Health Ethics: www.kansashealthethics.org. Choose Advance Directives from the left side.

* K-State Research and Extension Tenderhearts Web site: www.tenderheartscaregiving.org. Choose resources or planning for caregivers, then choose the medical/legal link.

* American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Web site: www.aarp.org. Search for Advance Directives.

This article was posted on Thursday, March 31, 2005, and is filed under College News, Family Studies & Human Services.