Each day across America, families are confronted with the challenges of making care decisions for their loved ones, young and old, facing a medical crisis. And, unfortunately, many of these families are making these decisions unexpectedly, with no time to prepare.
From sudden illness to accidents, life is unpredictable. We cannot postpone our life planning until we are ready because, for many of us, there is no such time. After all, according to some recent estimates, nearly one-fifth of all hospice patients were under the age of 65.
The effects of this are significant. From the emotional toll to the stress on family finances ó even the cost to the health care system ó we can avoid these burdens by better embracing end-of-life planning. Quite simply, no plan is not a plan.
Thatís why itís essential for families to have end-of-life planning conversations today and why we need robust public discourse among our policymakers that reflects those family-based conversations and prepares for our societyís future.
After all, year after year, we take the time to arrange family vacations, save for retirement and even plan what next yearís garden will look like. Why, then, wouldnít we allot similar time to discussing and deciding what we want in our last months of life?
Itís important to note that advance care planning does not mean deciding to die. For many of us, it means fighting to live, battling illness and accepting the best care that is available
Also, advance care planning is not just about treatment. Itís about deciding who will take care of us, who will speak for us and how we will have our individual wishes fulfilled. Itís also about conveying those wishes to our loved ones, so that they ó in an emotionally difficult time ó do not need to confront the challenges of trying to guess at our wishes.
Ultimately, advance care planning is a gift that we can give our loved ones. How and when we will die is something that is simply out of our control.
But making our wishes known so that they can be honored is something that we can and should control. The end of life should be a time of peace, where the greatest burden on our loved ones should be saying goodbye.
Too often, families are left to make those decisions on their own. This may lead to disagreement among family members, adding a new level of stress to an already painful time.
These conversations ó and the decisions that result ó donít have to be hard. There are abundant resources available to help guide the process, from discussion guides to state-specific legal advance directives to, for some people, faith-based counseling through their worship communities.
In fact, there are ways in which our policymakers can increase communications around end-of-life planning ó and need to, given the nationís growing transition to a patient-centered health care system.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.