Schiavo case prompts interest in living wills
EAGLE COUNTY – If there was one good thing that came out of the Terri Schiavo case, it’s that Americans are increasingly aware of the need to make some medical decisions when they’re perfectly healthy. Or, if they’re ill, to prepare for the worst regardless of how uncomfortable that might make them and their family.Schiavo, the 41-year-old Florida woman who died recently after 15 years in a what her doctors called a persistent vegetative state, was the focus of countless lawsuits, court actions and other legal squabbles as a result of controversy among her family about what to do with her. It’s hard to know if any legal document could have mitigated the circumstances in a case as contentious as that of Schiavo, but in most situations, a simple signed document or two can make a big difference.”The important thing is that people have them,” said Dorothy Sharpy, speaking of what are known as “advance directives” for health situations where the sick or injured person cannot make his or her own decisions. Sharpy is manager of Vail Valley Home Health and Mountain Hospice in Edwards, a facility that deals with seriously and terminally ill people.”The difficult thing is when you’re young and healthy and you don’t feel it’s necessary,” she said. “That’s where it falls to the family to make those difficult decisions.”Sharpy said residents of the Vail Valley tend to be younger and more athletic – people for whom death or serious injury is hard to fathom.”You can be young and healthy but if you’re injured skiing …,” she said. “They’ve heard of (advanced directives), but they didn’t feel there was any urgency.”As unpleasant as it may be to contemplate being in a near-death situation, Sharpy said the good news is filling out the necessary paperwork is simple. The forms can be obtained at no cost (see sidebar), and it’s not necessary to hire an attorney or even have them notarized – although it’s not a bad idea to do so.Sharpy said the two most common forms are for a living will and a durable power of attorney. Together, the documents should provide the legal coverage necessary to ensure your wishes are followed if you’re unable to make them known yourself.Estate planningAdvanced directives are only part of the picture regarding end-of-life planning.”Everyone needs a will, especially people with young children,” said attorney Paul Dunkelman of Carlson, Carlson & Dunkelman in Edwards. “If that’s not set up and something happens to the parents, there can be a real fight over who looks after the children.”Wills also provide instructions on what should be done with the financial assets of a person, and they’re relatively simple to get set up – although not without some cost.”It’s probably $500 to $800 for a complete will package,” Dunkelman said. “And that includes a living will and a power of attorney. It’s costly, but it’s not exorbitant.”Dunkelman said the time commitment is relatively small: an hour or so to relay the instructions to the attorney and another hour to review and sign the will.Those without wills, living wills or a durable power of attorney designee may not find themselves at the center of a legal firestorm like Terri Schiavo, but it can make things difficult for family members. Fortunately, Sharpy said, more people are looking into this aspect of life.”People more aware of it after Terri,” she said. “In one sense it was a gift to the population. It gave it a lot of press, so more people are thinking about it, discussing it, looking at those personal choices.”Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado
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