By the time most people are in their 50s, they’ve done some unofficial advanced care planning. And that’s because by that age, most people have spent at least a little time thinking or talking about their mortality. That is, when they’re going to die, what it will be like, and what it will mean for their loved ones.
Additionally, people over the age of 50 are often caring for their own aging parents, or at least, seeing the handwriting on the wall, so to speak. When our parents’ mental and physical health starts showing signs of obvious decline, it’s a wake-up call. It’s almost impossible not to wonder, “What’s next? What will I do when things worsen? What will it be like when I get there?”
Advance care planning, as defined by the National Institutes of Health, is “learning about the types of decisions that might need to be made, considering those decisions ahead of time, and then letting others know—both your family and your health care providers—about your preferences.” And what that means, in even simpler terms, is making decisions now about what you would like your final years, months, and/or days to look like when that time comes, if you are unable to take part in the decision making.
Decisions Made During Advance Care Planning
The numerous choices that you will make during the advance care planning process include:
- Whether or not doctors should perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if your heart stops during a medical procedure or if you have a sudden cardiac event, like a heart attack
- Whether you want to doctors to take extreme measure to keep you alive by artificial means, such as with the aid of a feeding tube or ventilator
- What type of comfort care you would like as you are dying or nearing the active dying process
One aspect of advance care planning is a legal document called an advance directive. This document contains your wishes pertaining to your care on the topics listed above, and many others. However, it does not go into effect unless you are incapacitated due to an injury or illness that renders you unable to speak or participate in the decisions about your care. Advance directives can be changed at any time, as long as a person is of sound mind and can articulate the changes of his or her own free will.
Advance Care Planning: Why It Matters
Not only does planning for your final moments, days, months and years bring you peace of mind that you will be cared for according to your wishes, it also eases the burden of decision making on others. For many families, having a loved one who is incapacitated and in need of constant or special care, or when sudden accidents require immediate decisions to be made regarding treatment if a person is unable to communicate, can be extremely stressful. Having your wishes made known ahead of time allows family members to provide more emotional support and comfort to you, without the need for agonizing decisions at critical moments.
How to Start the Conversation
One of the best ways to begin doing advance care planning is to simply inform your relatives, whether that’s your children, niece, nephew or sibling, that you intend to make some decisions regarding your eventual care. A great place to start is with long-term care (LTC) planning concerning where you will live when you are much older, whether you prefer to stay at home as long as possible, or prefer to transition to a residential facility. Once that conversation is in progress, the other, more personal decisions regarding medical care may be easier to discuss.