Party-goers ponder end-of-life decisions

Unusual gathering shares information about living wills

Posted: Thursday, May 19, 2005

The tabletops were covered with an array of wine and cheese. The party mix segued smoothly from Ella Fitzgerald to Billy Joel. The mood was pleasantly upbeat for the topic of conversation: death.

About 40 friends and neighbors crowded into Claire Richardson's Starr Hill home Wednesday evening to pick up copies and learn more about Alaska's new Advance Directive for Health Care & Mental Health Care.

The 12-page form allows people to give instructions about their health care and choose someone else to make those decisions. It's part of House Bill 25, which went into effect Jan. 1 and offers more options for the terminally ill.

"I thought this was a good chance for people to come together, have a glass of wine, listen to some good music, and think seriously about what they want to happen to them at the end of life," Richardson said.

"Living will parties" have come into vogue across the nation since the Terri Schiavo case dominated the headlines. The brain-damaged Florida woman died March 31 after her husband won a 15-year battle with courts, Congress and his family to remove her feeding tube. Schiavo had not signed an advanced directive, but her husband said that Schiavo had expressed her wishes.

After the Schiavo case, Richardson, a hospice volunteer and a volunteer chaplain at Bartlett Regional Hospital, realized that not many people were aware of the new law. She invited attorneys Beth Chapman and Vance Sanders to Wednesday's party to answer questions. They both volunteered their time.

"I don't care how anyone here fills out their forms or where they stand," Richardson said. "The important thing is that they make their wishes known so that their loved ones don't have to agonize over what to do at the end."

The Advance Directives form is available at Bartlett Regional Hospital and online at www.alaskalawhelp.org. It is legally binding, as long as you meet the requirements. The form requires your signature, as well as signatures from a notary or two witnesses. Sanders recommends choosing witnesses who are not part of the end-of-life decision. Minors can't fill out the form unless they are married or emancipated.

Chapman worked with Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, a sponsor of the statute. It was signed into law on July 25, 2004.

Prior to this law, it was more complex to express your end-of-life wishes. You needed a living will and a durable power-of-attorney form. There was no statute allowing you to name a surrogate in the case there was no living will, and no available guardian or agent to make your decisions.

"That's a major change which I think is important," Chapman said. "I really believe that people should have their wishes set forth so there's no dispute in the family."

Starr Hill resident Joyce Levine was unaware of the new statute.

"The normal Joe out there, I don't think knows the law has changed," Levine said. "And finding out the law has changed makes me wonder what I would need to do in order to make sure that my directive was followed.

"What a horrible thing to put on a family member or a loved one, to have them make that decision."

Jean Jasmine, an employee of Hospice & Home Care of Juneau, came to the party to gather more information for herself, her clients and her volunteers.

"I think having a party to talk about it and get it going, like Claire did, is a terrific idea," Jasmine said. "It's something that everybody puts off, including myself. But aneurysms don't give you much warning. Accidents happen. It's sure a good thing to do and get it done with."

Jasmine wrestled with a personal end-of-life decision in a situation where there was no advance directive. Her mother had Alzheimer's and spent the last five years of her life bedridden, in a fetal position, unable to eat or speak. Her sister inserted a feeding tube, but after much discussion, they agreed to remove it.

"It was worse taking the tube out than it would have been to not put in the tube in the first place," Jasmine said. "It was very traumatic, but we did it, and mother was able to pass peacefully."



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