Advance Care Planning: The Most Important Conversations Americans Aren't Having

What is advance care planning? Why is it important? Why do so many people resist it? Life Care Planning Law Firms are there to help when it’s time to have "The Talk.”

The statistics are sobering. Two-thirds of American adults haven't completed an advance directive, a legal document that outlines a person's wishes if they become incapacitated and can't make their own health care decisions, particularly near the end of life.

For Kris Maser, an elder law attorney with Maser, Amundson, Boggio, Hendricks P.A., a Life Care Planning Law Firm in Minneapolis, it’s no surprise. “Families put off these discussions as long as possible, especially in the upper Midwest,” said Kris, who has been practicing law for more than 35 years. “I’m in an area of the country where there are many Scandinavian families who don’t talk much about anything, let alone about planning for the end of life.”

When confronted with families in denial, Kris asks questions that help her assess the family’s structure, values, and roles. “I’m very blunt about it,” she admitted. “Drilling down is hard but I have to find out who can deal with reality so we can structure a plan that will work with the family unit.”

Coaching families who don’t want to talk takes finesse. “I consider myself a social worker in lawyer’s garb,” said Kris, “but it’s all in service of an important goal: to get our clients to a point where they can have a good death.”

Life Care Planning Law Firms strive to involve the family as much as possible in an elderly loved one’s dying process. “Many of my elderly clients tell me that their most important goal is for the kids to still talk to each other after they’re gone,” said Kris. “For this to happen, we have to find the cracks in the armor, then put the cracks on the table to talk about them. It’s not always comfortable.”

It can be even harder to talk about advance care planning when you’re younger. “You never know when something’s going to happen that would make it impossible for you to make your own healthcare decisions,” said Kris, whose cancer diagnosis a decade ago forced her to confront her own procrastination. “My staff put me in the hot seat and forced me to do my planning.”

Advance care planning involves the same steps for everyone, young and old. The easiest place to start is to think about whom you would trust to make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you were incapacitated in an accident or sidelined by an unexpected illness—your Healthcare Agent. “Your Healthcare Agent can be anyone you trust—a spouse, a child, sibling or someone else,” said Kris.

Once you’ve selected your Healthcare Agent, the next step is to draft a Healthcare Power of Attorney, which legally designates the person you choose to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. State laws vary on the exact criteria for creating a Healthcare Power of Attorney and it is always a good idea to consult an attorney to ensure the document is drafted properly. Creating an Advance Directive, a document that allows a person to choose the type of care received at the end of life, usually follows.

Taking a few moments to document your wishes and preferences might be the very thing that gives you some measure of control over the way your life comes to an end. It’s also a wonderful gift to family members who won’t have the burden of guessing what you might have wanted.