Part IX: Out Of Town And Back Again (With Advance Directives In Tow)

(Continued from Part VIII: Advance Directives: Dying Inside Our Big, Hairy Healthcare System)

The hubster and I just spent five glorious day up in the Sawtooth Mountains.

Snowshoeing.  With heavy packs.  Uphill.  Both ways.

Kidding.

It sure seemed like it though.  The snowshoe into the family cabin at the beginning of any trip is always a bitch and this was no exception–a two mile trek from the highway to the cabin, uphill with fully loaded packs, after a four and a half hour drive to get there. The bad news was that the trail wasn’t groomed like we were expecting so Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt (with bad knee and brace) started really struggling in the deeper powder.  (He made it though, and we’re more confident about his knee now than we have been in a while.)

The good news was that we got a late start leaving home so we didn’t actually strap the snowshoes on and start up the hill until about 8:00 pm.  It was already dark and the stars that night…the stars my friends…were outrageous.  It was one of the clearest nights we’ve ever seen and that’s saying a lot.  We rarely use flashlights because 1) you really don’t need them once your eyes adjust and 2) the electric light is so bright it dims the night sky.

As you may have heard, there was a spectacular crescent Moon/Venus/Jupiter conjunction going on last weekend and, sure enough, that trinity was hanging just over the silhouette of snow capped mountains as we got started.   However, the moon set after only twenty minutes so we had to content ourselves with a radiant swathe of Milky Way arcing over our heads from horizon to horizon while thousands of other constellations and stars filled the rest of the sky bowl curving down to the ground on either side of it.  (We made do.)  Meanwhile, the snow reflected all that diffuse light back into the air so that after a while it felt almost like we were trudging through a softly glowing snow globe.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  I just couldn’t.  I’m sure my face would have gotten frostbite from staring up through the bitter wind for almost two hours, except that my skin was too hot to freeze.  The heavy exertion was making me huff and puff and sweat like a pig.  (The hubster loved the stars too but was more preoccupied with trying to recall what were the exact symptoms of a heart attack.)

(Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson)

We’re getting older.  There’s no denying it.  And we’re not sure how many more times we’ll get to have these kinds of adventures.  Physical limits are getting harder to ignore.  But so far we’ve pushed on anyway because when you think about it, there are far worse ways to die than collapsing cradled in the wild beauty of high mountains while gazing up into pure, celestial wonder for the last time.

But not until we’ve finished our advance directives of course.

We packed these documents in along with everything else and spent one of our days at the cabin, pens in hand with a snowstorm raging outside, finally filling the things out.  It was surprisingly emotional.  We found it was one thing to sit and diligently read through them over the course of a few weekends, and something else entirely to actually write in our various notations, initial the desired boxes, and sign on the dotted line with each other as witnesses.

Everything suddenly got very final and real, and I kept hearing a heavy door swing shut with a key turning in the lock.  At first I struggled with the feeling that, by signing the thing, I was somehow giving up all my rights and instinctively, I started backing away and questioning the wisdom of the whole project.  I was surprised at how powerful…how primal…the wave of fear was.

But then I remembered something we’d read earlier, that if worst ever comes to worst and I’m finally lying unconscious and helpless and vulnerable somewhere, Somebody is going to step in and start making decisions for me. Whether I’ve filled out an advance directive or not.  Whether I’ve picked them to be the person or not.  Whether they know what I want or not.  And I suddenly got it…on a deep, gut level…that my advance directive is not the thing that will strip me of control and make me silent and helpless, it’s the thing that will help protect me in case I ever am.

That helped my resolve firm again and I was able to continue.

The hubster told me later that the fear he faced arose from a sudden and overwhelming realization that he will, absolutely, someday just cease to exist.  Poof.  Evidently, it was a huge moment for him but I never would have guessed it.  He didn’t look like he was sitting there reeling from the blinding, existential awareness of total, inescapable, physical annihilation to come.  From the outside he just looked absorbed.  Studying the paper in his hands, reading glasses perched on the end of his nose.  It’s not that he was trying to hide his fear from me, that’s just the way he is.  His courage is so unconscious most of the time that he usually doesn’t even realize that’s what’s going on.

We read and scribbled and talked about things for hours.  Sometimes we laughed, I cried some, but mostly we took turns trying to explain what we were afraid of, what we longed for, and how much we loved.  The process flushed out things that had been hidden and dormant for a long time.  Tenuous hopes and secret dreads, things to be examined, cradled in tender hands, and then placed into each others’ keeping in a final gesture of deep trust.

I’ve been really surprised throughout this whole process at the huge relationship component involved in filling out these forms.  Maybe because it was also a research project for me and we took so much time with it, maybe because we did it together as partners, I don’t really know but I tell you, it’s added a whole new level of meaning to Till death do us part. Overall it’s been a healing journey full of deepening intimacy for the hubster and I.  We’ve shared things we didn’t know we hadn’t shared, and revealed things we didn’t even know ourselves until now.

I guess if there was any advice I could give out of everything we’ve learned so far it would be this:

Do your advance directives together.  Find someone else who hasn’t done their’s yet, or who hasn’t looked at it in a long time if they have, and hold hands as you walk through it.  The person you pick doesn’t have to be the same person who will be your medical proxy.  (Although, if experience is any guide, you may want them to be by the time you’re done.)  And it doesn’t have to be only one other person either.  It could be a group…if you could find that many people brave enough.  I strongly suspect that this is one area of life where the maxim There’s strength in numbers holds especially true.  If you can possibly help it, don’t try to take this journey alone.

And take your time with it.  Break the process down over a few days or weeks.  If you let yourself sit with the questions for a while, you may be surprised by some of the answers that come up.  I know we were.

Y’know, it’s kind of funny.  In walking through our advance directives, it almost felt like an opportunity to practice for the real thing…for dying…from a safe distance. Emotionally speaking I mean.  In our imaginations the hubster and I got to slip on the experience of profound vulnerability and dependence that goes with dying temporarily, while we’re still healthy and vital and strong.  It was scary in some ways, but far less so than what I’d imagine it would be like facing it for the very first time in extremis.

And we got the chance to start honing a couple of the emotional skills that are essential to have during dying…things like the ability to surrender to the inevitable, to be openly vulnerable and reveal our needs to one another, to gratefully accept the help that’s offered and to be dependent gracefully.  Things that, in our culture anyway, we tend to think of as weaknesses or failings, and yet they’re not.  Those are things that actually require tremendous courage and strength.  I didn’t realize how much before.  To openly accept the willingness of another human being to step up and care for us isn’t easy, and accepting it with dignity is rare.  (Especially for somebody as controlling as I am.)  And yet the hubster confided a couple days ago that, during this whole process, he’s felt increasingly overwhelmed and touched by the depth of my trust.  Our willingness to open up and be vulnerable with each other turned out to be, not a burden, but a gift.

So anyway, these are just a couple of the things we discovered while filling out our advance directives.  It’s been a beautiful, frightening, surprising, hard, uplifting, sorrowful, strengthening, sobering, illuminating and profoundly intimate journey for us both.

And it’s still not over!  Next, we’ve set up an evening to meet with the people whom we’ve selected as our alternative medical proxies, to get their consent and share our advance directives with them. Then we need to get the forms notarized, witnessed, copied, distributed and filed. (Note: Because Idaho’s laws place unusually high hurdles to a simple, low intervention dying process, we’re taking precautionary legal steps with our advance directives that wouldn’t be necessary in most other states.  It’s extra insurance against something that probably won’t happen but still…better safe than sorry.)

And then, after we get ours taken care of, I’ve got the kids in my sights for theirs.

To wind this up, here are a series of photographs taken of some icicles hanging outside the cabin window during our recent stay.  The changes they went through over the days we were there feel similar to the changes the hubster and I have gone through on this whole journey with advance directives.

Stage One:  Glowing and happy from the previous night’s starlit adventure.  Delicate, sparkly and naive:

Stage 2.  Advance Directives Day–blasted by the elements, bewildered, and storm bent.  Not so sparkly anymore, but still…multiplying and stronger:

 Stage 3.  Skies are clearing, brunt of the work is done.  The amount of growth that happened during the storm is kind of surprising.  Thicker, longer, and a lot more:

Stage 4.  Older, calmer, wiser, stronger.  Not so much sparkling as glowing. We’re a lot more confident now that we can weather the storm. 

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

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Part VIII: Advance Directives: Dying Inside Our Big, Hairy Healthcare System

(Continued from Part VII: Advance Directives: Ours.)

Giants and Freia by Arthur Rackham

Turns out there’s a huge, third party squatting in the room with us, as we wade through our advance directives.  It’s our healthcare system.  We didn’t realize until now what a disproportionate influence it wields on our choices about dying and I’m struggling with some real sadness about it.

We discovered that the choices we’re making today are different than the ones we’d be making if we were either very wealthy or had access to universal health care.  

The unsettling truth is that we’re both opting to die a little earlier for reasons of cost and care burdens.  In our current healthcare system, dying could cost so much for medical intervention and help with day-to-day care, that it could easily leave whichever of us was left destitute and/or with broken health.  It’s happening every day to people just like us…middle class with decent insurance (I saw a couple of tragic examples when I worked with hospice)…and the hubster and I simply refuse to do that to one another.

I had a very hard moment the other night when I suddenly realized I wouldn’t mind so much, lying in bed for months or maybe even years, slowly declining while looking out the window at my beautiful garden, as long as I could still write and visit, study and learn, meditate and muse.  It surprised me.  I’d always thought if I couldn’t hike, escape to the mountains, garden and swim anymore, that I’d be done.  I had no idea that I could still be happy without those things…if only the burden of care was spread across the shoulders of enough people to protect them all and care for me well.  If only we were wealthy and could afford to hire them.  If only our healthcare system was universal…and actually helped with home care to begin with (which it doesn’t.)

For the first time I realized I’m not so much afraid of being disabled as I am of destroying the people I love with the burdens of my care, or of being cared for negligently in an institution somewhere (I saw too many tragic examples of this), and I experienced an unexpected and poignant wave of love and deep longing for my life.

On the one hand, I’m irrationally wishing we were born in Canada, or England, or Cuba instead…some country with universal healthcare that cares about all its people equally.

On the other hand, I say irrationally because I know that if I turned Fate loose for a do-over like that, we might just as easily have been born in Bangladesh or Somalia.  Some other country where dying can happen even faster.

I suppose there’s no useful purpose to be had in bemoaning destiny.  The hubster and I were born in this country, we’ve lived here all our lives, and this is where we’ll die.  And to tell you the truth, we don’t really want to die in another country with better healthcare anyway, even if dying here could come earlier and suck more.  We’ve loved our lives here.  This is our home and no country is perfect…a corrupted healthcare system just happens to be our particular Achilles heel.

So yes, all things considered, it’ll be okay if we wind up dying a little earlier here than we would if we were living in an ideal world.  I guess comparing our situation to perfection isn’t the best idea.

(Next the conclusion: Part IX: Out of Town And Back Again (With Advance Directives In Tow)

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Part VI: Advance Directives: Mine

(Continued from Part V: Advance Directives: Best To Wish Carefully With A Genie)

In this post I wanted to share a smattering of specific thoughts and choices coming up for me as I fill out my own advance directive.  I wanted to do this just in case 1) someone might benefit from an example, and 2) anyone reading this may somehow, someday be involved in my care.

Just kidding.

(Not really.)

But before I start down that road I want to remind everyone that whatever I say here is a personal thing.  It’s a reflection of me and what I’d like to see happen with my care.  It’s not what I think anybody else should do.

When I was working with hospice my first job in any home was to find out what the people who lived there valued, believed in, stood for, and loved…and then work to support them from that foundation.  I did this because the dying journey is pretty turbulent and, for the most part, people need to harness the emotional and spiritual strength they’ve already established, not try and develop something new.  It’s almost always a bad idea to change boats in the middle of rough water.

Jared Alexander on Hazard Creek in Idaho

Any boat is better than being dumped out and beaten against the rocks for the duration of the journey.  That’s why I always tried, as best I could, to hang my own beliefs and personal preferences on a hook outside the door.

This post is only about the things hanging on my hook.

And now, specifics.

Here’s one of the most valuable directions we’ve come across so far:  Fill this thing out based on what choices we’d want made for us right now.  I’ve always thought of an advance directive as something that would come into play…oh…years and years from now.  Like when I’m eighty-three and dying of skin cancer from all the second-degree sunburns I sustained during my haole childhood years in Hawaii, for instance.

But no.  Turns out I need to think more immediately.  Like for the next five years (after which I’ll review and update my directive for the following five years, and so on.) Which leaves me facing the question:  If my life was threatened right now, at fifty-three years old, would I want more life sustaining treatment than I would want at a terminally ill eighty-three?  In other words, do I want more aggressive medical intervention?  Will I accept more risk?

I suspect the majority of people would say yes at my age, however for me it’s a little more complicated.  Because I’ve already been fighting the good fight to survive depression for two decades, my troops are on the depleted side and I’m a little battle-weary.  My basic will to live has taken a considerable beating and I don’t have the reserves I once did.   Just the idea of having to mount yet another massive resistance in a brand new war is exhausting.

It’s not that I want to die.  I really don’t.  I haven’t been in that phase of the illness for a long, long time now.   But depression years are like dog years…you live more of them in the same period of time…so fifty-three years probably seems longer to me than it would to the average, healthy person my age.  To me, I’ve already lived a really long, great, adventurous life.  Everything from here is just icing on the cake.

So what does this mean?  Well, as of today (of course things can always change which is why I’ll continue to review and update this thing regularly) but as of today, if I was mortally injured or ill and teetering on the brink of infinity, and if a possible recovery was going to mean a long, hard slog just to get back to a state of health equal to or less than what I have right now, then I’d rather take a pass on any life sustaining measures.

Please kiss me and let me go, my darlings.

Of course I’m not sure if the medical personnel involved would either agree or cooperate with that at my age…at least right away.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that in an emergency situation I’d still wind up on life support temporarily.  But then that’s exactly why I’m filling out this document right?  So that the hubster and/or the kids would be able to explain to them first, that I’m completely sincere about not wanting to be “saved no matter what,” and second, why I’m sincere, and that way eventually…gently and with everyone on board…they could remove me from life support.

Like I said, this stuff winds up being totally unique for each person doing it.  I suppose the main dictum for filling out an advance directive is, Filler Outer: Know Thyself.

A couple of other scale-tippers I discovered so far concern the issues of being a burden and/or a catastrophic financial cost.  I saw some tragic examples in hospice of how the drawn-out dying process of one spouse can not only bankrupt the surviving other, it can cripple their bodies and/or minds as well.  Occasionally, that’s just the luck of the draw and in those cases…oh well.  I can always stop eating if I feel that strongly about it (and can still think.)  But at other times it happens because of medical intervention and in that case…I don’t want to do that to him.  I DO NOT want to.  It would suck all the meaning and happiness right out of any additional life I gained if it stripped or destroyed the hubster in the process.

At this point I should mention that the advance directives we’re working with don’t offer assisted suicide as an option.  They can’t.  It’s not legal here in Idaho.  (I wonder if advance directives in Oregon and Washington include something along those lines?)  Locally, we’re only talking abut whether we want to accept or refuse “life-sustaining treatment” in extremis (from CPR to major surgeries to artificial nutrition and hydration to kidney dialysis and breathing machines…all of which can be big contributors to the election campaign of financial catastrophe BTW.)  So…no.  Not really.  Thank you.

Pass.

So, these are just a couple of examples of what we’re considering as we move through the documents.  It’s a lot more than just checking off box #1, #2, or #3.  And while I realize it might sounds pretty grim, in reality it feels surprisingly freeing to just face it.  Like these are big, unknown fears lurking just under the surface anyway, unconsciously sapping our focus and creating unease, so why not just haul them up out of the water where we can finally get a good look at them?  So far we’re finding that under the bright light of day, talking about these things isn’t horrible or morbid at all.  On the contrary, it’s a relief.  While it’s definitely emotional, it’s emotional in a kinder, braver way.  Not bad, really.

Well, this post has gotten too long.  The hubster and I are having our second go with the advance directives this weekend so I’ll try and post more about how it’s going next week.

(Next: Part VII: Advance Directives: Ours)

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Part V: Advance Directives: Best To Wish Carefully With A Genie

From The Arabian Nights by Maxfield Parrish

(This post is the fifth in a series on advance directives.  The last post was Part IV: Advance Directives: Will They Be There When We Need ‘Em?)

February is here!  After eleven years of procrastination, our self-declared Advance Directives Month has arrived and the hubster and I are finally tackling the forms. It’s going a lot better than we expected.  A LOT.  Like finally-easing-that-horrible-fear better.  Here are a few things we’ve learned so far.

1)  NOT ALL FORMS ARE CREATED EQUAL.

In an earlier post I mentioned that I was planning to use our state advance directive forms.  But after downloading and looking them over I changed my mind because, unfortunately, they made me feel even more confused, uneasy, and out of control about the future than I already did.  I realized a big part of my procrastination was because I’m afraid of signing something legal that I don’t fully understand, and with the state forms?  That’s pretty much guaranteed.

I needed a form that would not only list the basic legal choices but actually explain them.  I wanted some context.

In Part III: Advance Directives: Forms and Where To Find Them I researched a variety of other options, and there were two I ultimately considered as alternatives.  The first was the Lifecare Advance Health Care Directive and the second was MyDirectives.com because they both offered the strong educational/support element I was looking for.  We eventually decided to go with Lifecare for a variety of reasons.  It was just a better fit for us.  However, a person looking for something shorter and simpler might prefer MyDirectives.com.  I’d urge everyone to check out all the options before making their own choice.

2) THESE FORMS ARE ULTIMATELY REVEALING OUR MOST FUNDAMENTAL BELIEFS ABOUT THE VALUE OF LIFE.

And I thought they were just about how to die.  Silly me. 

Far from making us uncomfortable, so far the process of filling out these forms is kind of freeing.  It’s easing that vague, horrible dread that tends to linger out around the edges. (Dare I use the word…empowering?)  It’s helping us both define the basic, essential, and worthwhile elements of life, the ones that make it worth living for us, and there’s this funny kind of anchoring feeling that happens each time either of us hits one on the head.  It’s an aha!  Like getting a shot of strength in the arm that instantly settles the butterflies and clears the eyes.  And what’s really amazing is how much that sense of anchoring lessons all the other clamoring fears like What if get hooked up anyway?  What if I lose my mind and can’t even remember what I want? What if I lose ALL CONTROL!?

That last one is the biggie of course, but it’s extraordinary how just sitting and talking about it together is helping to ease it. Which leads me to the third insight we’ve had so far:

3)  IF POSSIBLE, IT’S BETTER TO TACKLE THESE FORMS TOGETHER.

I’ve been saying all along that, no matter how good, complete, and legal the forms are, the chances of them doing much good without having conversations with the other people involved are a lot smaller.

But now I’m discovering there’s an additional…and even more profound…benefit to the hubster’s and my conversations: They’re improving the quality of our life and relationship right now.  I’m not kidding.  We’ve been together for twenty-three years and we’re learning things about one another we never knew before.  Plus, each of us is coming up with unique questions…and insights…and fears…and strengths…that the other gets to learn from, too.  The sense of alliance and trust we already had is getting deeper as we go.

We totally have each other’s backs.

4)  IT’S BETTER TO TAKE OUR TIME WITH IT.

Since the Lifecare Advance Health Care Directive is a long form with a lot of supporting information we decided to break it up over a few weeks.  We’re giving it the hour on Saturday mornings that we already committed to emergency and long-term planning (a new project that we’ve both resisted but is turning out to be remarkably productive) and we had our first sit down with the form last week.  The hubster read from the advance directive while I read from the supplemental Guide (the guide isn’t absolutely necessary but it’s VERY helpful)…and the information is, surprisingly, kind of fascinating.

It covers a lot of history, different legal and medical cases that have shaped thinking over time, medical and legal boundaries that define what we can actually ask for, definitions of what all the different terms mean, and how to bridge the gap between what lay-people tend to want and what medical people can actually do. The overall learning curve is steep but the Lifecare directive is providing a much larger context to help us understand what we’re doing and why, and this leads me to the last important point:

5)  WE DIDN’T KNOW JUST HOW MUCH WE DIDN’T KNOW.

Today’s medical technology is complex, changing, overwhelming, and often totally incomprehensible.  Even so, the hubster and I HAVE to figure out how to navigate it.  (Either that or find a cave somewhere out of ambulance-reach.)  I think most of us want the miracles modern medicine has to offer, but we’d just as soon do without the extra burden and responsibility that goes along with having them.

Unfortunately, that’s not possible.

At it’s core, modern medical technology is basically another genie in a bottle and, like any genie worth its salt, the wishes it grants us are subject to all kinds of unforeseen consequences. It’s pretty easy to wind up with a result that doesn’t look anything like what we thought we’d asked for.

The shrewd Bottle-Wishers among us (generally those with a lot of exposure to the system) have seen firsthand how unpredictable wishes can be, so they tend to think theirs through very carefully beforehand.  They ask, they learn, they craft, they plan…then they write it down.

Newbie wishers, on the other hand, mistakenly believe the genie will somehow understand what they mean however garbled or incomplete.  This, of course, makes them the ones more likely to wind up with something they didn’t bargain for.  (Tubes, drool, and paddles, my friends.)

The hubster and I would prefer to sit with the shrewdies, no matter how steep the learning curve.

I didn’t understand when I first started this project how genuinely glad I was going to be that I did.  Or how much more I’d wind up getting out of it than I’m putting in.  On the one hand, it’s taken a lot more time and energy than I’d anticipated, but it’s already paying off in some handsome and totally unexpected, dividends.

So far, so good.

Next post I’ll start talking specifics about my own choices.

(Next: Part VI: Advance Directives: Mine)

copyright Dia Osborn 2011


Red Flag: Could Doctors Bypass Our Medical Proxies With Electronic Access To Advance Directives?

Huh oh.  Here’s an FYI post.

I was just reading an article titled Handful of states promise physicians online access to advance directives  in Amednews.com, an online news source published by the American Medical Association, when I came across the following disturbing passage:

“By connecting the advance directive to an information exchange, a physician could access it without having to contact family or caregivers, or find out a patient’s login and password to current online registry programs. That connection would allow a physician to follow through on the patient’s wishes without any obligation to contact anyone.” (emphasis mine.)

Without any obligation to contact anyone?  HUH-OH.  Did the American Medical Association just toss out our right to a medical power of attorney?  Are there any doctors out there really thinking that online registries will allow them to sidestep our medical proxies, families, and loved ones? Or is this just a misunderstanding on the part of the journalist that wrote the article?

For those who don’t understand the question, here’s a little background:  There’s been a strong push by the government to make all of our medical records electronic.  (It started with Bush and received funding under Obama.)  The current goal is to have 100% of the nation’s records electronic by 2014.  (Not likely to happen that fast.)  Part of this massive effort involves establishing Health Information Exchanges, or HIE’s, at the state level, and states have already received a considerable amount of money to start setting these things up.

Enter: Advance directives that are registered online.

One of the goals for electronic medical records is to also have our advance directives available online.  States with A.D. registries are already working to connect them to the HIEs they’re setting up, and at least one private online registry, The U.S. Living Will Registry, is planning to coordinate with the HIEs.  That’s what the article is referring to when it says “By connecting the advance directive to an information exchange, a physician could access it without having to contact family or caregivers, or find out a patient’s login and password to current online registry programs.”

I’d be more inclined to dismiss this whole thing as a simple error if it wasn’t published in a news source published by the American Medical Association itself.  Could this kind of confusion exist to some extent within the medical community?  If there’s any possibility that it does then my natural inclination is towards exercising caution while some of the kinks are getting worked out of the developing electronic system and its use.

I looked around and found one possible solution. (Other than blind trust…which is not my forte.)  It turns out that, where online registries are concerned, the U.S. Living Will Registry also has an option for a Document Locator Form as an alternative to downloading the actual documents to their website.  The Document Locator Form directs a doctor or hospital seeking my advance directive to contact the people who know where it is and what it says, (i.e. my medical proxy and/or family) rather than giving them access to the documents themselves.  This creates an unfortunate hurdle for doctors trying to access my wishes, but it also provides a layer of protection during a chaotic transition to effective electronic exchanges.

My biggest fear with this is that a well-intentioned but ill-informed doctor might pull the plug on me before my family had a chance to reach my side and say their good-byes.  (While traveling for instance.)  I, personally, don’t mind hanging around a bit longer…however uncomfortable or undignified it might feel…if it gives the people I love the opportunity for that gift of closure.  I know the difference it would make for them during grieving would be profound.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Part IV: Advance Directives: Will They Be There When We Need ‘Em?

Continued from Part III: Advance Directives: Forms and Where To Find Them.

If you’ve followed my little journey through the advance directive maze, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed by now.  Linda over at Rangewriter mentioned in a comment that she is.  I admit, I am.  This stuff is even more confusing and uncoordinated than I thought.  (But I’m also relieved.  At least now I know why I’ve procrastinated for eleven years.)

I felt a twinge of resentment this morning because it doesn’t seem like completing an advance directive should be this hard.  But then it hit me that one of the reasons it’s so complicated is because we’re living (and dying) in the medical wild, wild west…a vast unexplored, exciting territory with new discoveries happening every day.

A couple of pioneering ancestors of mine.

So of course the learning curve is steep.  Pioneering always involves hard work.  But it also means there aren’t any right or wrong choices yet. Just lots and lots of new ones.

The other reason this is so hard is because, to figure out what I want, I first have to know who I am, what I value most, what I (suspect I) can and can’t bear, and what kind of legacy I want to leave behind for those I love.  Then…I have to put it all into words.  That’s some heavy lifting.  Especially in a society that’s as committed to never, ever, ever thinking about this stuff as ours is.  (Talk about starting with an understanding deficit.)

Enough.  Now that I’ve identified the hurdles, onward and upward over them.

ONLINE REGISTRIES FOR ADVANCE DIRECTIVES

In the last post I researched some of the advance directive forms we can choose from.  The next step is figuring out the ideal way to get our completed forms into the hands of those who will need them.  There are a few ways to do this:

1)  Make hard copies and hand them out.

2)  File them with an online registry, and

3)  Some blend of the above two.

In figuring out which way is best for us, here are some things we need to consider:

1)  Privacy issues.  This information is intimate stuff.  Who/how many do we really want to share it with?

2)  Security issues.  Who can we trust with this information?

3)  Confusion issues.  We need to update this information once a year or when it changes.  How do we make sure every copy out there is also updated?

4)  Accessibility issues.  How can we best ensure that the people who need this information will have it if necessary?

Hard Copies Vs. Online Registries

Privacy and Security:  Everyone’s going to have their own preferences for privacy concerning their advance directive.  Personally, while I want my specific personal information protected, I’d just as soon as many people as possible know what my wishes are.  I feel like the more people who know, the less likely it is that mistaken choices could be made.

In fact, I’m planning to include pertinent information from my advance directive in February’s posts, partly as a possible example of one way to do it, partly to stimulate some conversation, but mostly just to get the word out.  I feel pretty strongly that this is an area where secrecy is more likely to harm than help me.

Now, comparing hard copies to online registries in terms of privacy and security:  hard copies let us control how many copies and who gets them.  We can pick only the people we trust to take care of them, so there will be less likelihood of “leaks.”  These will also be the people we already have relationships with, and therefore people whom it will be easiest (and most necessary) to have ongoing conversations with.

On the other hand, every online registry has security protocols in place. (I suspect that private registries might provide better security than state registries at this point.  The current attempts to develop Health Information Exchanges are evidently creating some chaos.)

Confusion:  On the one hand, it’s harder to update hard copies, much less all the hard copies out there, as often as they might need it.  However, putting an advance directive online with a state registry now could also lead to confusion.  (Chaos link again.)  I’m rethinking my original intention to use our state registry for this reason.  At least for now.

Accessibility:  Hard copies have definite limits in the accessibility category.  Even if we’ve handed out copies to the right people, will they remember to pull them out of the file and bring them along to the hospital when they’re actually needed?  Online access promises to make our documents far more accessible in that hour of need…unless of course the computers are down.  (I don’t consider that risk unimaginable…and evidently neither do any of the online registries.  They all have disclaimers to sign stating that they’re not responsible in such an event.)

So, there are pros and cons to both hard copies and online registries, which is why I think we personally will use a blend of the two.  We’ll get a limited number of hard copies into the hands of kids and parents, and then register our documents with one of the private online registries where our other loved ones will be able to view them with the use of a private link.

Here are the web links for three different online registry services (you’re gonna have to do a little digging on your own to find your state’s registry, if that applies):

State online registries:  Only a few states have these so far.  Here’s the most recent list I could find from FierceHealthIT. 

Several states have created online advance directive registries with the intent of connecting them to statewide health information exchanges (HIEs), according to an article in American Medical News. Recently, Virginia became the latest state to take this action, joining Idaho, Montana, and West Virginia. Washington state also planned to start an advance directive registry, but had to drop that plan because of budget cuts.

U.S. Living Will Registry: Provides access to documents 24 hours per day, anywhere in the world.  Also provides a wallet ID card, labels to attach to drivers license and insurance cards, and yearly reminders to update your directive if necessary.  Also provides document access to medical personnel (of course) as well as online personal  access to registrants for viewing and updating documents.  Any advance directive form is compatible with this registry.  There are fees.

(The U.S. Living Will Registry is also planning to coordinate with the state registries of Vermont and Washington.)

America Living Will Registry:  Provides access to documents 24 hours per day, anywhere in the world.  Provides an ID card with a toll-free emergency number and web address.  Emergency medical personnel may obtain copies of your directives either on-line or via fax.   Any advance directive form is compatible with this registry, including Canadian.  There are fees.

MyDirectives.com:  Provides both medical and personal access to documents 24 hours per day, anywhere in the world.  They don’t provide an ID card to protect registrants’ security.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, MyDirectives.com is a new approach that provides a completely web-based form and registration process which promises to be a lot more user-friendly than anything so far.  They provide their own advance directive to fill out with helpful prompts and conversation starters.  Other advance directive forms cannot be used with this registry.  Their service is free.

Well, today’s the last day of January so I guess this concludes the research leg of the journey.  Time to roll up our sleeves and take the first real step.

Next post: Part V:  Advance Directives: Best To Wish Carefully With A Genie.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Quick Note: Another Great Resource for Advance Directives

New resource! Thanks to Loretta over at Chrysalis who left the link in a comment on my last post about Forms and Where To Find Them.

Turns out something like a National Advance Directive Month already exists.  Only it’s a day not a month, and it’s called National Healthcare Decision Day.  You can find out more about it here.  The site is worthy of a look as it has a more comprehensive list of advance directive forms and websites than the one I compiled.  (Including a Psychiatric Advance Directive designed specifically for people dealing with a mental illness. I know, I know.  Who wants more choices!?  But there it is.)

BTW, Loretta has been working with the dying for about twenty-five years and does a great job describing some of the gifts that are also available-but-usually-overlooked at the end of life.  If you’ve got the time and interest, her website is worth a look, too.

Part III: Advance Directives: Forms and Where to Find Them

Research!

Continued from Part II: What is an Advance Directive? (Or Why I’ve Been So Confused.)

In this post I plan to go over some of the different kinds of advance directive forms that are out there, a few different options for filing them, and some of the pros and cons of each. However, before I go into the details, here are a couple insights I’ve gained during my research that help keep the the whole idea of advance directives in perspective:

1)  The majority of end-of-life decisions actually take place as a collaboration between doctor, patient, and loved ones without the use of advance care planning tools.  In other words, most of the time doctors, patients and families will work it out themselves, without the need for legal documents or government agencies.  Advance directives should be thought of more as an insurance policy against worst case scenarios, rather than the primary tool to be used for communicating with loved ones and doctors.

The situations that spring to mind where advance directives are most likely to come in handy are: 1) in accidents or other emergency situations where loved ones can’t be immediately located, 2) in cases involving younger people or the disabled, 3) in situations where the elderly don’t have any close family or friends to look after them, 4) when family is confused or in disagreement about our wishes, and 5) in nursing homes and assisted living facilities where staff members can play a role in immediate medical decisions.

Also, it bears noting there are a few sticky situations where state laws are more likely to come into play.  Assisted suicide is at top of the list of course, but a couple of states are also nervous about withholding/withdrawing artificial hydration and nutrition.  Here in Idaho for instance, the legislature recently passed a bill stating that some medical providers do not have to provide any kind of end-of-life care that violates their conscience, and it’s created a fair degree of uneasiness amongst our elders, let me tell you.  However, these cases are the exception, not the rule.  Choice at the end of life is usually an area where official agencies are loathe to meddle in family affairs.

2)  The legal forms, no matter how well written, legally binding, or universally available, aren’t of much use without having accompanying conversations with loved ones and doctors.  The best legal form in the world will never, ever, ever be an adequate substitute for talking about our wishes with our loved ones and doctors.  Ever.

I’m surprised at the number of people I’m talking to who filled out forms once upon time, somewhere, somehow, but are now not sure where they are or even what they say.  I think I understand how it happened.  Early on it was thought that just filling out the legal forms was enough.  If it’s stated and signed, then they have to, right?  Turns out not so much. Because of the complex, living, breathing, constantly changing nature of…well…life itself, we’ve learned that a lot of additional communication is actually required.  That’s where conversations with our medical proxies in particular come in.

NOTE TO SELF:  When choosing who will have my medical power of attorney, don’t just write their name down on the form and file it in a drawer.  Let them know: 1) that I picked them and 2) what I want them to do. Otherwise, they’ll be as clueless as everyone else and look foolish into the bargain.

Really.  Let’s all agree not do that to someone we love, okay?

NOW ONTO THE ADVANCE DIRECTIVES FORMS.

1)  The State Forms. 

Pros:  State forms are legally recognized by their own state and easily accessible.  In addition, here in Idaho, if we file our advanced directive with the online state registry it will be easily accessible to state-wide medical providers in an emergency because that’s the first place they’ll look for it here.  There’s are also online national registries where these forms can be registered.  (I’ll talk about registries in the next post.)

Cons:  Since the hubster travels a lot, accessibility out of state is a bigger issue for him.  We would definitely need to register him on a national database.  And if his choices include a treatment/refusal of treatment that is controversial in another state, his advanced directive is less likely to be respected. (Although that’s true for any A.D.)  Also, state forms in general tend to be less user-friendly, written more to address the concerns of the political, medical, and legal communities than the patients they’re supposed to serve.  I know on our Idaho forms, we would definitely have to write any additional thoughts and wishes we have separately and then attach them to the file.

WHERE TO FIND THEM:  There are 51 of these suckers out there. (Yep. The District of Columbia has one, too.)  A great place to find your state form is at Caring Connections, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO).  When I went to the website myself, along with our Idaho forms I also found helpful tips on how to fill them out as well as a link to our state registry.  The rest of the website is loaded with valuable information and resource links if you want to look around.

2)  FIVE WISHES by Aging With Dignity

This is probably the best known, privately developed advance directive.  It’s most famous for having been endorsed by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Pros:  Five Wishes was an early, brave effort at creating an advance directive geared towards addressing what matters to the individual rather than the state, and it provides questions for personal and spiritual issues as well as medical ones.  I actually used Five Wishes as a guide when I had a conversation with my father and his wife about their end-of-life choices a few years back and it was enormously helpful.  We all learned a lot about each other and ourselves.  It currently “substantially meets” the statutory requirements of 42 states including Idaho, so this form is another option for us.  The form is viewable online and is available in 26 languages.  They also offer a pediatric form.

Cons:  This form doesn’t meet the statutory requirements of eight states.  We also discussed this one at a hospice inservice once (eight years ago now) and the general consensus was that it would probably be best to use Five Wishes to communicate more nuanced choices with loved ones, and then fill out the state forms to satisfy the legal entities.  The form costs $5.00 but, as I mentioned above, it’s viewable online so you can look it over before you have to decide.  Also, the proceeds go to support Aging with Dignity, a non-profit (and very worthy) organization.

Editor’s note:  Paul Malley from Aging With Dignity was kind enough to contact me with important information regarding the above-mentioned recalcitrant eight states:

You mention in the pro-con section that Five Wishes does not meet the legal requirements of 8 states, which is true. I should point out that these are states that require its residents to jump through additional hoops, such as using a specific form, a mandatory disclosure notice, etc. We have many users in non-Five Wishes states and we know of no health care provider anywhere who has refused to honor Five Wishes. You should also know, if you don’t, that the federal law requires health care providers to honor ANY expression of your wishes.

I would also add that since writing this post I’ve learns things that changed my mind, and I now think Five Wishes would be a better choice than a state’s advanced directive.

I haven’t heard back yet whether or not the Five Wishes form can be registered with one of the online registries.  I’ll update this as soon as I get an answer.

UPDATE:  This form can be used with at least one national online registry.

WHERE TO FIND IT:  the Five Wishes website.

3)  Lifecare Advance Directives

This advance directive was conceived back in 1995 when a loose group of doctors/nurses/lawyers/social workers/chaplains/bioethicists/lay people started researching what, if anything, could truly and best communicate our wishes. The research involved in this project is staggering.  It’s comprehensive with a capital “C”.  Then, once they’d gathered all the information, it was assembled into an advance directive that was test-driven in a sample study.

Pros:  It works. In a study with 1000 subjects it proved more accurate in communicating what people really wanted than any of the other forms available at that time.  Lifecare also provides specific advance directives for active military personnel, citizens of the four U.S. territories, and those in federal prisons, all of whom are subject to slightly different regulations.  There’s an A.D. for those who travel internationally, too. The website also offers a wealth of guides to help in understanding the labyrinth of medical and legal choices out there (for those who love footnotes, prepare to be thrilled) and there’s just nothing else out there that compares in terms of comprehensiveness.  The researcher in me is hopelessly…hopelessly…smitten with this form. They can be downloaded online or ordered in print.  (The print versions are more expensive.)

Cons:  It’s l.o.o.o.o.n.g.  The main form is 30 pages.  It’s also more expensive than any other form.  Each directive and guide is priced separately ranging from $3.99 to $16.99, although the main form that most people would use is $7.99.

Humorous side note: The Should I Use a Shorter Advance Directive? guide alone is 32 pages long with 199 footnotes.  (If you were wondering, their answer is no.)

I haven’t heard back yet whether or not the Lifecare form can be registered with one of the online registries.  I’ll update this as soon as I get an answer.

UPDATE:  This form can be used with at least one national online registry.

4)  The Protective Medical Decisions Document (PMDD) by Patients Rights Council

While some people worry most about late-stage medical overtreatment and the profound, unnecessary, and unwanted indignities it can cause, others are more concerned with the somewhat cavalier attitude toward the value of end-stage life currently making inroads in the general awareness.  I, personally, have seen tragic examples of both dynamics play out in real life and therefore share both concerns. The PMDD is specifically designed for those who are more worried about the latter problem.  It eliminates the living will entirely and offers only a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care that is limited in one important respect: the “agent may not authorize that you be given a lethal injection or an intentional lethal drug overdose. Further, your agent may not direct that you be denied food or fluids for the purpose of causing your death by starvation or dehydration.”

Pros: This form gives someone who is strongly pro-life additional protection against the possibility of either having life-sustaining treatment withdrawn prematurely or being overdosed against their wishes.  (The latter happens more frequently than I think most people understand.)  There’s a multi-state PMDD as well as state-specific forms for those with specific statutory requirements. This form is free (a donation of $10 is requested but not required.)

Cons:  The PMDD is not available online for either viewing or ordering.  It has to be ordered by phone and delivered snail mail.  Photocopies of this form are not considered legally binding (which actually has some pros, too, see the explanation.) This means it probably wouldn’t work with an online registry, if that was even possible to begin with, which I’m still looking into.

WHERE TO FIND IT:  To obtain a PMDD packet, phone the Patients Rights Council (800-958-5678 or 740-282-3810) between 8:30am and 4:30pm (eastern time).  Be sure to designate which version of the PMDD…Multi-state or AK, AL, CA, CT, DE, FL, HI, IN, MI, MN, MO, NC, ND, NE, NH, NV, OH, OK, OR, SC, TX, VT, WV or WI…you want.  For more information about the PMDD visit the Patients Rights Council website.

5)  MyDirectives.com

MyDirectives.com is brand spanking new (just launched this month) and is a private company’s effort to overcome some of the main hurdles that keep people from completing effective advance directives.

Pros:  They’re a one-stop shop where a person can access and fill out an advance directive, and then file it with an online registry all in one place.  Judging from the informational videos on the site it looks like the A.D. itself is user-friendly and fairly complete but I couldn’t actually access any of the specific sections for a closer look without signing up first.  There’s the unique opportunity to include audio/video recordings with the advance directive, which I think is a particularly nice touch.  The website has a lot of good information (including a section on autopsy choices…I didn’t even know that was necessary.)  Probably the greatest advantage MyDirectives offers is as a central source of information.  The form is simple to fill out and keep updated online (updates are critically important) and then a personal link to the records can be provided to loved ones so they can also view the document and any changes immediately.  The registry is also available to necessary medical providers of course.  And best of all, everything is free to the consumer…the advance directive and the online registry. (the company makes its money on the back end from insurers/government agencies.)  This is a great savings.  The cost of the other two registries I looked at average about $60 for five years.

Cons:  Not only is the website new, so is the whole concept.  There are bound to be some kinks to work out along the way.  Also, since everything is done online, there is no traditional “form” that one can download and fill out by hand.  This creates a significant hurdle for elders and others who lack either computer skills or access.  And as I mentioned, there was no way to preview the document before signing up for the service.  Also, this website is brand exclusive.  You have to use their advance directive which can then only be registered with their online registry.  None of the other advance directives mentioned above will work with MyDirectives.com.

Overall, this concept is absolutely brilliant and, I believe, the wave of the future.  I’m very excited about it.  I’ll be following it to see how the website itself does in practical reality.

WHERE TO FIND IT:  At MyDirectives.com.

So far I’d say that, developmentally speaking, if the whole field of advance directives was computer technology, right now it’s at the stage where we’d just be launching the internet.  Lots and lots of different advance directives out there but very little inter-connectedness.  The good news is I think that’s about to change as tools in this field start becoming more user-friendly, connected, and efficient.

A couple years from now I’m sure I’ll look back at this post and shake my head in wonder.

Enough.  Originally, I was planning to cover online registries in this post, too, but ha ha ha.  This monster is already over 2,000 words.  So that will have to do for now.

Next time:  Part IV:  Advance Directives: Will They Be There When We Need ‘Em?