Not long after answering the help-line for the Area Agency on Aging, I received a call from a woman who needed guidance on her advance directives AKA the paperwork you fill out so someone can make decisions about your care/medical treatment if you cannot. At the time I was probably 32 — I’m sure she was in her 80s. Her voice was urgent with the tell-tale loudness of someone who was hard of hearing. In a cubicle situation with a coworker whom I adore to this day for all of her patience, I held the earpiece away from my ear.
“HELLO?!” a voice said.
“Information and assistance — how can I help you?” I say, rote memory. The caller skips over the niceties and launches into her dilemma.
“I WROTE ON A PIECE OF PAPER THAT EVERYTHING I OWN SHOULD GO TO MY DAUGHTER BUT I DON’T WANT TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL IF I CROAK,” she tells me, loud…as in loud-loud. “BUT SOMEONE TOLD ME I NEED SOMETHING ELSE! I DON’T HAVE ANYTHING ELSE. I WROTE ON A PIECE OF PAPER THAT EVERYTHING SHOULD GO TO MY DAUGHTER.”
“Do you have a medical power of attorney so your daughter can make decisions about your care if you can’t?” I ask.
“DO YOU. HAVE. A MEDICAL POWER OF ATTORNEY. SO YOUR DAUGHTER CAN MAKE DECISIONS. ABOUT YOUR CARE. IF YOU CAN’T?” I am very. much. overly. loud. and continue to explain: “SO SHE CAN TELL DOCTORS IF YOU DON’T WANT TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL?” I didn’t look back to see my coworker’s face but you know when you can hear someone smiling?
“I WROTE DOWN IN MY WILL THAT EVERYTHING SHOULD GO TO MY DAUGHTER!”
The earpiece is several inches away from my head and I shout: “DO YOU HAVE A MEDICAL POWER OF ATTORNEY? SO THAT YOUR DAUGHTER CAN SAY YOU DON’T WANT TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL?” This is an oversimplification of medical directives but we are at square one.
“I HAVE A WILL….”
“HOLD ON — ONE SECOND. YOU NEED TO HAVE SOMETHING. THAT SAYS. YOU DON’T WANT TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL.” And then I realized we’re missing the point so I yell (hearing my coworker smile harder): “YOU NEED A MEDICAL POWER OF ATTORNEY IF YOU DON’T WANT THEM TO TAKE YOU TO THE HOSPITAL.”
“I HAVE A WILL!”
No kidding, I think, figuring there’s only one way to explain all of this: “YOU NEED A MEDICAL POWER OF ATTORNEY FOR WHEN YOU’RE ALIVE” — I am shouting — “….A WILL IS FOR WHEN YOU’RE DEAD!!”
Miraculously, she yells back, “SO A POWER OF ATTORNEY IS SO THAT I DON’T HAVE TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL? FOR WHEN I’M ALIVE?”
“YES!” and I offer to send her the forms. I can hear my coworker smiling, and now shaking her head.
* * *
It’s hard to know what paperwork is what, who needs a copy and, dammit, how to make sure you aren’t given medical care that you don’t want in the middle of a crisis. In fact, it takes a lot of prep work to make your wishes known and have them followed — even if it’s your preference to avoid drastic measures. Better to have the conversations now; better to have some/any paperwork rather than none. In most instances, a healthy person of moderate means should have:
- a Medical Power of Attorney (MDPOA) – decision-maker for medical/care issues if you can’t express your decisions
- a Living Will (stating what life-sustaining measures should be taken if you have a terminal illness or are in a persistent vegetative state)
- a Financial Power of Attorney – to handle your finances if you’re incapacitated
- and a Will – for the distribution of your estate
You may also have a CPR Directive, a MOST form (Medical Order for Scope of Treatment) and possibly trust paperwork. A social worker can walk you through the forms related to your health and care; an estate planning attorney can walk you through those forms in addition to the financial POA, wills and trusts. Some states even have a basic financial POA form for those who do not have complicated resources and assets.
In partnership with the Denver Coordinated Workgroup, here’s a quick starting place for what you need to have your bases covered — when you’re alive, and when you’re dead: Estate-Planning & Advance Directives. It also lists helpful websites for completing your advance directives and explains what happens if you are incapacitated and don’t designate a decision-maker beforehand.
Finally, keep in mind that all of these documents become really-truly robust when you’ve had conversations with those around you about your wishes and how to handle your affairs after you’re gone.
And if you still have questions? Just holler — literally…we can take it.