LIVING WILLS, GREYHOUNDS AND GOALPOSTS
National Healthcare Decisions Day – April 16, 2015
Center for Practical Bioethics
For years, I’ve been curious to know whether people fail to complete living wills and avoid naming a healthcare agent out of procrastination or a false sense of confidence that they have plenty of time to do it later.
Reality is, if you don’t do it when you don’t have to, it’s not likely to go well when you do. Naming someone during a time of crisis to speak on your behalf can be downright cruel, especially when you’ve not shared much about the things that are really important to you.
Share What’s Important
What are those things? Well, they aren’t scary or monumental. They include things like how important laughing, talking, sharing and “just being” are to you. Don’t get all tied up in feeding tubes. Instead think about what sharing a meal means to you. Is it a means to an end or an end in itself?
I once shared a house with an older-than-me bachelor and swore when he ate at home he never cooked anything that didn’t come in a box and could go in a microwave. I, on the other hand, started just about every meal sautéing fresh onions and garlic in olive oil. Food had entirely different meanings to us, and that became starkly evident to me when we talked about his dad’s early onset Alzheimer’s and how differently he approached the question of feeding tubes when the difficult question arose in his family.
So stop worrying about a tube in every orifice! Instead think about the sharing what you want more than anything – even at the end. Don’t obsess about completing a living will (aka healthcare directive) to the point that it paralyzes you from acting. Instead, take the time to share with someone who loves and cares for you what’s important to you as you think about life in general and especially its final stages. Focus on the positive - the most fulfilling aspects of your life. This isn’t a “bucket list” of items to do, but rather a sharing of values and convictions. What do relationships, solitude, faith, nature, self-expression and art, work, music and family mean to you?
Then, when that’s all done, ask that person to be your agent. And then promise that person that you’ll do it again in a year or two down the road – or whenever you have a major event in your life – from the birth of a child to the diagnosis of a serious illness. Life happens and, while our wishes and dreams may alter, you’ll be comforted by the fact that values – real bedrock beliefs about life and love – pretty much stay the same. But don’t assume even those close to you know all that.
Recognize Greyhounds and Goalposts
Over the years I’ve learned about two very important syndromes that all of us deal with differently. One is called the “Greyhound Syndrome.” It’s the phenomenon that sometimes we experience a great freedom of anonymity sitting next to a perfect stranger (on a bus traveling cross country) and share our deepest thoughts more freely than we do with those we’ve shared a lifetime with. Hospice volunteers can regale you with stories they’ve heard, never to share again, by a dying patient. These are not necessarily dark secrets of our past so much as unvoiced hidden treasures. Some are worth sharing before we die; others are worth taking to the grave. Think about which is which.
The other syndrome is what’s called “Moving Goal Posts.” This phenomenon deals with how some future state or health condition may appear unacceptable at one point in our lives and much more acceptable at another. That’s why checking boxes and lists on living will forms doesn’t work for people in states of relative good health. But stories, treasured thoughts, values and convictions work at every level.
Have a Caring Conversation Today
So take a leap and share your stories with someone you love. And, this April 16, on National Healthcare Decisions Day, have a caring conversation. Name an agent. Start talking about what matters most and don’t make it a somber depressing discussion. Think about it as a gift to those you love that will lead to peace of mind – for you and them. Because it likely will – far more likely than leaving it to chance. Close to 85% of us will have to rely on someone else to make our final wishes known.
If you need help getting started, we’ve got a little booklet that will help you do just that. Download a free Caring Conversations workbook or order a printed version from the Center for Practical Bioethics’ website.
Seize the moment and turn what you thought was morbid and ghoulish into the marvelous and glorious. You may just discover something about a loved one that will serve you both in the moment and for a lifetime.