My turn: April a time to think about health and death

Posted: Tuesday, April 01, 2008

April in Juneau is a time of the earth awakening. Bright crocus begin to bloom and the distinctive smell of skunk cabbages wafts through the air, alerting us that spring has arrived.

We prepare our boats for fishing and on Saturday, April 12, we can visit the Nugget Mall for the free health fair. At the fair, we practice preventative health care, take a blood test, or learn about the many health programs available in Juneau. The National Healthcare Decisions Day 2008 is on April 16. This is the day that Americans across the United States pause to take a look at their health care decisions. This is as important and essential as resetting our clocks for daylight saving time and checking the batteries in our fire alarms.

Even with all the reminders of health in April, many of us don't really think about our health or our death. In spring, we start planning our gardens, our fishing trips and our vacations, but do not think about protecting our families in case of an accident. When someone dies, most of us have no idea what to do. My brother-in-law's brother had cancer. Even with warning, no one expected him to die as quickly as he did, not even him. He had no will, no directions to his family for his remains or belongings. Although my brother-in-law had heard his brother express earlier his desire to have his ashes spread on his wife's grave, no one knows where her grave is located.

Recently while on an airplane returning from Portland, I spoke to a woman whose husband was in a coma. He had been in a coma for over two months. They had never talked about dying or what they wanted if either one were reduced to a vegetative state because of an accident. She is very afraid that she will make the wrong choices for someone she loves.

There are just a few forms you need to fill out to protect you and your family's future. Here is a simple list to help you start thinking about what you need to be protected:

1) A living will addresses end-of-life decisions and enables you to put into writing exactly what you want done if something happens and you can't make decisions for yourself.

2) A durable medical power of attorney designates a person to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself.

3) A last will and testament or a trust designates to whom and how you want your possessions to be distributed. There are other simple things too: Do you know your spouse's or partner's social security number or the location of their birth certificate? Who pays the bills? Are they paid on-line? Do you know the user-ids and the passwords for the various Web sites? Do you know what the monthly expenses are? Sharing this information or having a place where it is written down is one of the most important ways to care for your family. So while we plan to live a healthier life filled with lots of living, why not also make sure we have our health care directives in place. It is a part of life, isn't it?

On April 16, National Healthcare Decision Day, check to see if you have health care directives in your files. A recent poll of more than 1,000 people said that only 30 percent have made these decisions.

Dr. Lani Leary will speak on how death matters at 7 p.m. on April 25 at Centennial Hall. Leary will give us an opportunity to understand about how to help others who are dying and their families, what questions do we need to ask and how to ask them.

The time is right to check the big and little things in your life. Make sure the batteries in the fire alarms are replaced as well as determine what is best for you if death gives you a nudge. Remember your future depends on many things, but mostly on you.

• Virginia Palmer is president of the local Foundation for End of Life Care, a nonprofit, publicly supported charity established in 1997 with the mission to focus on community awareness and education about end-of-life issues, including estate and advance care planning.

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