Early in the pandemic, I wondered what might happen if I came down with a serious case of Covid-19 and had to be hospitalized. My biggest concern was my dog and cat! I made a pact with a friend to look after them.
But then I thought more about it. Who would pay the bills while I was away? Would I want doctors to take extreme measures, or even, God forbid, put me on a ventilator? How would my family make decisions about my health? I realized that I had failed to do the most basic planning to prepare my college-age daughter, an only child, for the responsibilities she would face if I became ill.
While there is no silver lining in the pandemic crisis, 2020 has shown all of us the value of being prepared. In the early days of the pandemic, we panicked, hoarded toilet paper and packed our pantries to deal with the uncertainty of shutdowns. But planning for uncertainty is a better strategy. Perhaps the greatest gift you can give to your family is a binder of legal documents that will make sure everyone is prepared for an emergency.
And here’s a surprise: When I sat down to imagine a serious health crisis, and the guidance I would want to offer my daughter, it wasn’t depressing. In fact, it was joyful! I used the process of writing my advance directive and living will as an opportunity to think about my values, my hopes for aging well and what makes life worth living. It was like time traveling to the future and helping my daughter through what will be one of the most difficult moments of her life.
It takes quiet reflection and a little time to complete these forms. As I wrote my instructions for making health decisions, I wanted to offer guidance for the situations I might not imagine now. I thought the best way to do that was to include my thoughts about what I value in the life I have lived so far, and what I want my daughter to think about as she’s making hard choices about quality of life. It was an uplifting exercise that reminded me of my good fortune. Here’s an excerpt:
For me, life is wonderful with the ability to read, write and enjoy the world around me. If life after treatment would leave me confined indefinitely to a bed or require round-the-clock care, that is not a life I want to live. As you are making these decisions for me, I’m sorry you are in this position, but know that I have lived a wonderful and happy life with much love, joy and adventure!
So for today’s Well challenge, I encourage you to embrace the opportunity to be prepared by creating an advance health directive and gathering other documents to support your family in a time of crisis. I’ve mapped out six simple steps and the links you need to do it. Sign up for the Well newsletter to get the 7-Day Well Challenge in your inbox.
Create a Crisis Notebook
Pick a binder: While you should create a digital copy of all your important documents, having a physical binder that your loved ones can grab quickly in a crisis is a good idea. I chose an attractive three-ring binder that looks nice on my bookshelf! It’s out in the open so it will be easy to find if someone needs it. You may also want to put backup copies in a fireproof lockbox, give a set to a trusted friend or lawyer and scan copies to put in an online folder.
Use a checklist: The first pages in my binder are from this AARP worksheet, which is the best checklist I’ve found to help identify everything a loved one might need in a crisis. It includes space to list medical, insurance, financial and end-of-life information and answers the most important question for your loved ones: “Where is it kept?” Many of the documents you need vary by state, and some require witnesses and possibly a notary. They all require some thoughtful contemplation on how you want to be cared for during an illness or at the end of life.
Write your advance directive: You can find the forms for your state on the AARP website. An advance directive should designate someone to make medical decisions for you if you’re not able and offer specific guidance about your wishes if you become critically ill and require life support. If you don’t complete these forms in advance, your immediate family will be in charge of your care in a crisis, even if that is not whom you would have picked. In addition to putting a copy in your home binder, you can ask to have it put on file with your medical provider and your lawyer, if you have one.
Have the talk: Have a conversation with your backup decision maker about your wishes and make sure they know where to find the document. A Kaiser Family Foundation study reported that only 56 percent of adult Americans have had a serious conversation about health care preferences, 27 percent wrote down their preferences, and just one in 10 discussed them with a health care provider. For additional guidance, read The Time for ‘The Talk’ Is Now by Dr. Laura Schellenberg Johnson, a physician at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, Wash. To give your loved ones additional support, consider adding a “last letter” to your binder.
Gather legal documents: Add important legal documents to your binder so they’re easy for your family to find. (Keep the originals in a safe deposit box, with your lawyer or in a fireproof box.) If you die without a will, the courts will decide how to distribute your estate. Various online services offer simple wills. The Wealth Matters column in The New York Times recently talked about this in Making Wills Easier and Cheaper With Do-It-Yourself Options. My colleague John Schwartz shared his experience in What It Was Like to Finally Write My Will. A durable power of attorney for finance allows a designated person to access your finances. You can find free forms online, or sites like LegalZoom or Nolo will offer guidance for a fee.
Don’t forget your online accounts and passwords. About half of caregivers say they don’t have legal authorization or passwords to access online accounts like utility accounts, banks, credit cards and social media accounts. The solution is to create a digital estate plan now. Think about what you want your online friends (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) to know if you should become incapacitated. Learn more about creating a digital estate plan from this AARP guide.
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