If you become seriously ill and are suddenly unable to speak for yourself, will other people know what kind of health care you want? Advance care planning – the process of letting others know your values, care preferences, and what matters most in your life – can bring security to you and those who care about you. Despite all of us knowing that we should identify our care preferences and make them known long before facing a serious illness, not enough of us do it.
In many ways, the severe illness that suddenly develops among some COVID-19 patients highlights the importance of advance care planning. If you are an otherwise healthy older person and contract the novel coronavirus, you may end up in a situation where it is difficult for you to make very important personal decisions about your care.
You may know someone who was otherwise healthy, but contracted COVID-19 and fell seriously ill or even passed away in just two weeks. One critical lesson from the pandemic we should all take away is that advance care planning is important.
More than 60 percent of adults do not have their wishes for care at the end of life adequately documented. This means decisions about care are left to family and medical professionals at a time when highly consequential choices must be made quickly. The number of people with an advance directive, the documentation of your wishes, is especially low in the Black and Latino communities.
At the same time, we know from focus groups that older adults worry about leaving some of their most important medical decisions in the hands of their children, either because of the stress of the decision-making or because they aren’t sure their kids will really carry out their wishes.
Advance care planning helps you share your own values and care preferences, ensuring that what matters most to you is what happens.
Even with the best of intentions, without advance care planning, family members or a medical team may make decisions that are inconsistent with your values and what is important to you. If your family does not know your wishes, you may be kept alive on a ventilator for months or even years despite preferring to forgo life-sustaining treatment.
But with advance care planning, you have the power to change that.
The following guidance and resources start the important process of planning.
- Talk to Your Family
92 percent of people say that talking with family about end-of-life care is important, but only 32 percent have actually done so. Conversations about illness and death are emotional and can be difficult to start but this guide from The Conversation Project can start the process of planning.
- Document Your Wishes
There are many forms that advance care planning documents can take, and legal requirements vary by state. However, lawyers are not required, and your doctor or hospital can help you complete these documents. Organizations like Prepare for Your Care and Five Wishes are valuable places to find planning forms. If you already have a serious illness, a form called POLST is a medical order your doctor can complete in consultation with you in order to ensure you get the care you want.
- Revisit Your Plans
Regularly revisiting advance care planning ensures your wishes reflect any changes in your health that may have developed since the document’s original drafting. You can change your preferences at any time.
It’s not easy to think about advance care planning and your preferences in case you get seriously ill. But it’s more upsetting to think about the care you might, or might not, receive because you didn’t make your wishes known. Remember, planning brings you and your family peace of mind and is part of getting age-friendly care.
For more resources on age-friendly care, visit johnahartford.org/agefriendly.