As a physician, my main responsibilities are to improve the quality of life and to save lives. However, none of us will live forever. Few writers address death because most people would rather not discuss it. Who wants to think about dying?
Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse from Australia, wrote a book titled "Five Regrets Of The Dying" (Hay House). I suggest reading this book.
Ware cared for terminally ill patients who had returned to their homes and families to die. She engaged in some very intimate conversations with her patients during their final weeks of life, and noted the five following regrets were the most common:
1) I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2) I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
3) I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5) I wish I had let myself be happier.
Think about it … do you have any of those same regrets?
Let's review my "nuts and bolts" suggestions designed to help you save your family from an enormous amount of emotional and financial stress.
Organize your home
After you have departed, imagine your heirs having to sift through everything in your home. Make it easier on family members by disposing of or donating items that you don't really need.
Organize your important documents and keep them in one secure location in your residence. Have copies of certain documents stored in your bank security box or keep them with your attorney. Keep a list of trustees, brokers, attorneys and insurance agents in this file with corresponding addresses and telephone numbers.
Robert Kaplan, a Schaumburg-based attorney and founder of Law Offices of Robert M. Kaplan, PC, emphasizes the importance of having a will.
According to Kaplan, "A will directs your survivors how your property is to be distributed, and who will take care of any minor children. The will also indicates who inherits your assets and when they will receive them; who will manage your estate as executor and/or trustee; and for the orderly continuance or sale of a family business. If you don't have a will, the government (by statute) determines which relatives will receive your money, property and valuables."
Have an attorney prepare the will so your final wishes are stated in a legal document.
A living will outlines your instructions for end-of-life care. You can decide if you want to have cardiopulmonary resuscitation, artificial nutrition with a feeding tube, dialysis and more.
The living will becomes activated if you are unable to communicate. Have a living will completed when you are healthy. This removes the burden from loved ones who may not know your wishes, and puts you in control.
Medical power of attorney
The Illinois Power of Attorney-Healthcare allows an individual to authorize an agent to make decisions related to his health care in the event the individual becomes mentally or physically unable to act for himself.
"This keeps the choice for making important decisions about your health out of the courts, and avoids the additional time and expense required," said Kaplan.
If you don't want to be resuscitated, then have a legal document state that you are "DNR" or Do Not Resuscitate.
Let family members know this and have the document readily available. For example, if the paramedics come to your home for an emergency and you have a cardiac arrest, you will be resuscitated if a family member doesn't know your wishes.
Have an attorney prepare these documents and give a copy to your doctor and your health care agent. Discuss your wishes with other family members and your primary care provider.
Kaplan adds, "The parents or legal guardian of a minor may request a DNR order for the minor. The DNR can always be modified over time if needed."
Care of kids and pets
Do you have a trusted loved one available to take care of your children and pets? You may wish to appoint a responsible person and discuss this important duty. Set aside some funds or perhaps a life insurance policy to accomplish this major task.
Make sure your heirs know what type of funeral you wish to have. Do you want to be buried or cremated? Do you want your funeral conducted in a certain manner? Do you want a simple ceremony or something more elaborate? Also, consider setting aside funds to pay for this event rather than having others bear the expense.
Doctor's Summary: Embrace this difficult subject one step at a time. Organize your home, designate your critical files, finish your important tasks, rekindle meaningful relationships, prepare a will, take care of your advance directives, plan for your children and pets, and make decisions regarding your funeral. Get started now. You and your family will be glad you did.
• Evan Lipkis, MD, is a physician, author and lecturer based in Glenview. The advice contained in this article is for informational purposes only. Readers should consult with their physician to evaluate any illness or medical condition. To comment on this column or to receive a free email health newsletter, contact Dr. Lipkis through his website at www.DrLipkis.com.