Advice to live by

March 20, 2012 01:50 pm

I have decided to turn today’s column into an advice column. I don’t usually give advice because, as someone once said, anyone who knows the difference between good advice and bad advice doesn‘t need advice.

But everyone needs this advice, and nothing would please me more than to hear from someone who actually humors me and follows my suggestion.

If you don’t already have what we call in Oregon an advance directive (living will and power of attorney for health care), draw one up as soon as you can. 

George Bernard Shaw chose for his epitaph,  “I knew if I stayed around long enough, something like this would happen.” 

And it will.

Shaw was, of course, referring to the final “something,” but life frequently has some wretched “somethings” in store for us before we shuffle off our mortal coils. Of all the people I’ve known personally or even read about who have died, I can count on my fingers those who were able to make a speedy and gentle exit.

Living is a habit, and the incredible human body just wants to keep on going. Sometimes after vital parts of us have called it a day. Let’s not list all of the despicable things that can happen to lower the quality of life long before we actually die, but several of them would prevent our participating in our own final patient care conferences. 

That’s when the doctors, nurses, case managers, your six estranged cousins, and belligerent Aunt Hildegard consult on whether to keep you going with tubes and respirators and heaven only knows what other brilliant dehumanizing technology. And you’ve lost your vote because you didn‘t make out an advance directive. 

It doesn’t take more than one relative mumbling that she doesn’t recall you ever saying anything about not wanting to be kept alive artificially before medical and legal people start getting nervous. 

That’s when, just as with the famous Terri Schiavo case, the medical decisions move to the hands of judges. Even if the judge ultimately does what you would have wished, it can take months or even years for the process to play out.  

But if you have put down in writing what your preferences are for medical treatment on the not-so-far-fetched possibility of your being unable to speak for yourself someday, you can argue forcefully against Aunt Hildegard. 

And your advanced directive can name any person you choose to make those medical decisions for you. This is particularly important if the person you’d most like to make the decisions is not your spouse or legal next of kin.

Do not confuse the “living will” part of the advanced directive as having anything to do with the last will and testament that will sort out your vast wealth (or in my case absurd collection of worthless trinkets) among your heirs. It only relates to your medical decisions while still alive. 

And, no offense to lawyers, the swell part is that the advanced directive can be accomplished without the assistance of an attorney.

Almost any hospital or clinic or private doctor can lead you to the right paperwork. You can even download forms on line at Make sure signed copies are with your medical providers, relatives, and your chosen decision maker. 

You can be prepared for illness, accident, advanced age, and the swooping of Aunt Hildegard. 

And let’s hope you never need anyone to take over medical decisions for you. Let’s hope you die while roller skating down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées at age 110.

But just in case that doesn’t work out, be prepared.