Vail Valley encouraged to participate in National Healthcare Decisions Day
Special to the Daily
If you go…
What: Take Charge of Your Health: Free community events on making health care decisions.
When: April 23, 2-3:30 p.m.; April 26, 5-6:30 p.m.
Where: Avon Public Library (April 23), Gypsum Public Library (April 26).
More information: Visit www.agingwelleaglecounty.org/upcoming-events.
Additional resources to help with advanced care planning
National Healthcare Decisions Day: www.nhdd.org
The Conversation Project: www.theconversationproject.org
Five Wishes: www.agingwithdignity.org
Aging Well Eagle County: www.agingwelleaglecounty.org
Eagle Valley Senior Life: www.evslife.org
HomeCare and Hospice of the Valley: www.hchotv.org
American culture celebrates youth, vitality and living life to its fullest, often so much so that topics like death and living with a chronic illness are taboo. This, in turn, means that individuals tend to avoid completing their advance directives or discussing advance care planning with their loved ones.
That is the reason for National Healthcare Decisions Day, which is actually recognized for a week, this year from Sunday through Saturday.
“Americans are notorious for not choosing to execute (their wishes) or even thinking about death,” said Markey Butler, executive director of HomeCare and Hospice of the Valley. “It’s American culture … whereas in other cultures they are more focused on what they want in terms of how their last months or years will be spent and what their goals are.”
Advance directives are legal documents — a living will and a medical health care power of attorney — that allow you to plan and make your own end-of-life wishes known in the event that you are unable to communicate. A living will describes your wishes regarding medical care, for example whether you would want to be kept alive on a ventilator. With a medical power of attorney, you can appoint a person to make health care decisions for you in case you are unable to speak for yourself.
National Health Care Decisions Day, Butler says, provides a good opportunity to revisit and update your documents or to get started for the first time.
“On (National Health Care Decisions Day) every year, re-evaluate what you have chosen to execute in terms of your life wishes,” Butler said. “Or, at least, get started. Do your homework, talk with a loved one, talk with your physician. And sit down and really think about what you want.”
Completing your advance directives is, however, only one part of the process. It’s also important to discuss your wishes with your family members and physicians. Broaching this topic can often be uncomfortable, tricky and, for some, downright intimidating.
This is where tools provided by organizations like The Conversation Project as well as those provided by local organizations like HomeCare and Hospice of the Valley, Aging Well Eagle County and Eagle Valley Senior Life, all of which offer information, resources and workshops about advance care planning become invaluable.
Start the conversation
“The Conversation Project is a wonderful tool for getting the conversation started,” Butler said. “You can download the starter kit from their website for free. It includes a great conversation guide that you can sit down and go through with a loved one and let your wishes be known. From there you can take it to your physician and then he or she can sign the document for you.”
Five Wishes, Butler said, is another useful tool. The Five Wishes packet was created and is distributed by the national organization Aging with Dignity. It also contains a conversation starter guide, along with advance directive documents which, once completed, signed and witnessed, are legal documents in 42 states, including Colorado.
When it comes to starting the conversation with your loved ones, Pat Hammon, who is the veteran services officer with Eagle County and has been involved with Aging Well Eagle County since its inception a few years ago, said it’s good to start small.
“The best way to start is to say to the family, when the day comes when I’m ill, I would like everything to be really easy for the family,” Hammon said. “Say, I don’t want there to be arguments and so I’d like to discuss these things ahead of time. And don’t bite the whole thing off in one visit. Talk about one thing first and then a month or a week later, have another discussion.”
In the situation where you want to ask a loved one about his or her wishes, Hammon said, “Take it all in small bits and tell them it’s because you care about their wishes and their thoughts.”
While there are some decisions, she said, that can be made between you and your family, others must be made in person with your doctor, such as a do not resuscitate order, which basically says that you don’t want CPR if you stop breathing or if your heart stops completely. The good news is that conversation with your doctor, and others regarding advance care planning, is now covered by Medicare.
The red binder
Hammon and other experts will discuss more ideas, tips and tools for tackling these difficult conversations with your loved ones in two upcoming workshops presented by Aging Well Eagle County and Eagle County Public Health. The workshops, held in celebration of National Health Care Decisions Day, are free to attend and will be held on Sunday and Wednesday, April 26, at the Avon and Gypsum public libraries, respectively.
Workshop attendees will also learn about Aging Well Eagle County’s Red Binder Project and will have the opportunity to build their own red binder, which is a compilation of documents individuals — typically older adults — create for themselves to help improve communication between themselves and their doctors.
“Part of this whole National Health Care Decisions Day and getting people comfortable with talking about all of this is part of a larger subject of people being advocates for themselves with their medical personnel,” Hammon said. “The red binder is a way to help people do that.”
The binder includes a letter explaining to the individual’s doctor what the binder’s all about. There are also pages for listing medications, an emergency medical information sheet, the Five Wishes document, an advance directives information sheet and a section for writing down questions for the doctor before an appointment.
If you can’t make it to one of the workshops, then you can download the full red binder packet online on the Aging Well Eagle County website; they’re also available at the Eagle and Minturn senior sites.
‘Age doesn’t discriminate’
Angela Grohmann, a social worker and program consultant at Eagle Valley Senior Life, agrees that self-advocacy is important and said it starts the day you turn 18.
“Advance care planning applies to everybody,” Grohmann said. “Even though we’re talking about it under Eagle Valley Senior Life and I think it seems a lot more critical as you get older, it’s still as important the day you turn 18.”
“That’s because in Colorado — and this is different state to state — you don’t have a default next of kin law, so a lot of people assume, well, if something happens to me, my spouse or my kids or whoever can make decisions. But in Colorado we don’t have that law in place so it doesn’t default to anybody, you’re responsible for yourself. So you have to have a plan and paperwork in place to execute whatever you desire to have in case of an emergency.”
She added that because of how laws vary between states, second homeowners and other transient locals should have advance directives done in both states in which they reside, especially if they’re traveling back and forth between states frequently.
Finally, she said, you don’t have to go to a lawyer to get your advance directives in order.
“You can get the documents for free online,” Grohmann said. “You don’t have to hire an attorney, but it’s good to do it if you can. If you have the money and you have the established relationship then, yeah, you should definitely go through an attorney. But if it’s a barrier, (the forms you get online) are still legal documents.”
Ultimately, making these decisions ahead of time, and documenting them, empowers your loved ones to make decisions based on what you want in the event that you can’t communicate, relieving them of the emotional burden often endured by those who never had the conversation.
“I always say age doesn’t discriminate, it really doesn’t,” Grohmann said. “If you don’t care enough about yourself, know that there’s someone that cares and that the best thing you can do is gift it to them.”