My husband and I recently had house guests from England. It was the first time our friends had come to Ohio and we were very excited to show off the beauty and culture of Northern Ohio–the Cleveland Museum of Art, the West Side Market, Amish country (which was high on their list) and especially our beautiful Lake Erie sunsets.
We planned for months for our friends’ visit. So much needed to be done–fix the shower that has been dripping far too long, replace the old, squeaky storm door, repair the rickety wooden steps leading to the patio… The list was long, but one-by-one we checked things off as they were completed. The house was just as we wanted it to be when our guests arrived and the much-needed, long-neglected improvements were finally done. Everything was just as we hoped it would be.
A friend of mine is getting married in a couple of weeks. She has been planning the big event for more than a year. The wedding garb, the hall, the food, the cake, the guest list…it all has to be perfect. Now it’s ‘crunch time’ and all of the final details are being put in place. I’m sure the day will be just as she dreamed it would be.
Another dear friend who lives quite far away has recently been diagnosed with a gradually debilitating health condition. From this point forward he will be unable to travel to visit us here in Ohio, so my husband and I have begun talking about planning a vacation to visit him and his wife next spring. We’ve talked about how to finance the trip, the most economical time to travel, how long and where we might stay, what we’d like to see while we are there. It would be our first trip overseas and we are getting excited about the possibility. It may be our one and only trip abroad. We will develop our travel plans carefully so that it will be the best vacation it can be.
So, what do house guests and a wedding and a vacation have to do with an elder law firm? Or care coordination? Or aging? Well, let me try to explain.
I was thinking the other day about all of the planning and preparation that goes into such events such as these. We begin our planning efforts far in advance, we spend hours researching and making selections that suit us and we make lists of all of the things that we need to do in order for the big day to be just as we want it to be.
But do we plan for our own inevitable future? Do we plan ahead for our own death and our own funeral? Do we put in even a fraction of the effort in planning for that day as we do for the fun or joyous events in our lives?
At various points earlier in my career I provided social work services to patients in hospitals, residents of nursing homes and those receiving hospice care. I often discussed end-of-life planning with those whom I served. Did they have a Health Care Power of Attorney and Living Will? Were those documents current? Did they have a Durable Power of Attorney and had they reviewed it recently for accuracy? And what about a Last Will and Testament? If one existed, did it express their wishes today or reflect what their wishes were twenty years ago when it was first executed? Had they planned for their funeral and burial – even as far as picking out the specific prayers to be read or music to be played on that final of days?
For years I talked with my ‘clients’ or ‘patients’ or ‘residents’ and their families about such issues, but (and I hesitate to admit this publicly) did I practice what I preached? Of course not. I’m human. I don’t like to think about my own aging, my dying and my funeral. My husband and I did execute our Wills shortly after we were married, but have we looked at them since? Not once. Our attorney at the time was wise enough to have us draw up our Health Care Powers of Attorney, Living Wills and Durable Powers of Attorney as well, but did we review them periodically? Never.
Well, I need to be totally honest here. I shouldn’t say “Of course not,” “Not once”’ and “Never,” because we did just recently pull out our legal documents (after nearly seventeen years) and make arrangements to have them updated. We were quite surprised at how much had changed in our lives and how outdated the documents were.
It wasn’t our diligence or attention to detail or our wisdom in planning for our future that caused my husband and me to take a look at our legal paperwork. Our review was prompted by the recent sudden death of a friend who had not yet reached the age of sixty. In our shock of learning of his death, my husband and I began to worry that we may not be as prepared as we would like if something similar happened to either of us. My husband doesn’t like to talk about it, and honestly, neither do I, but talk about it we must.
I hope to pull out our new documents every several years and review them. If there is a change in our family situation, especially related to anyone named in our documents, I hope to remember to review them again. I hope to update them as needed so that when one of us finally dies, we will have made the necessary plans, completed all of the required steps and checked the important items off our list. When that final day comes, I hope that it will be just as we planned it to be–for the one who has died and, especially, for the ones who remain.
By Terry Fries-Maloy, MSW, LISW