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​The ins and outs of end-of-life planning

It might seem like an unpleasant thing to think about, but a little thought now can give you and your family peace of mind.

For the second time in six months, I found myself sitting in an emergency room.

“Do you have a living will or a health care power of attorney?” the nurse asked.

“No,” I said, looking down at my feet. I admit this scared me more than the possibility of finding out what was causing the symptoms that had landed me there in the first place.

Establishing a will had been on my list of things to do since I’d unexpectedly wound up in the ER the previous time around. But I hadn’t felt well, and with my mystery illness ruling practically every aspect of my life between hospital visits, I still hadn’t gotten it done. Plus, at age 37, it hadn’t exactly been high on my priority list.

To say my lack of preparedness added to my stress level only undermines how I really felt. What if there was something seriously wrong with me? Would my loved ones know what I wanted them to do? These were just a couple of the questions that further induced the panic I felt when diagnosed with a massive saddle pulmonary embolism that night—a life-threatening condition that I thankfully survived.

Since then, I’ve become something of a zealot about this topic. So I leapt at the opportunity to share my experience to help you learn about these important documents.

Where do I start?

“End of life planning is about preparing for how you want to be treated at the end of your life and choosing who you want to make decisions for you, should you find yourself unable to make those decisions on your own,” says Progressive’s Chief Medical Officer Tim Kowalski.

The best time to make these decisions and have these conversations with your loved ones is when you’re healthy. Don’t wait until you’re sick or injured and wrapped up in the emotion of the situation to make such important decisions. In fact, Tim recommends having conversations about these kinds of things when our lives are calm and we’re at our most relaxed.

“It may sound odd, but even taking some time out during a family vacation to discuss these matters can be a good idea,” he suggests. “That way you’re thinking clearly and can really devote some time to the subject.”

The Internet can help

A simple Google search for living wills and health care powers of attorney will yield a variety of useful resources to help get you started, including the templates you may need to construct these documents.

So, let’s start with the basics:

A living will is a written document that spells out the kind of health care you want—or don’t want—to be kept alive. It’s different from the conventional will you’re probably used to hearing people talk about, which has more to do with who gets your belongings when you die. A living will is a place to formally state your health care preferences, and includes specific information about potential end-of-life care decisions such as resuscitation, ventilation, tube feeding, and organ donation. It’s also worth noting that in some states a living will may be called something different, such as an advance directive, which is the combination of a living will and durable power of attorney.

Which leads us to durable powers of attorney. These are documents that give you the power to legally appoint someone you trust to make health care decisions for you, and ensures your doctors and other health care providers are giving you the type of care you want to receive if you’re unable to make such decisions for yourself. Depending on where you live, the person you choose to make these decisions may also be called a healthcare proxy, a healthcare agent or representative, or some other term.

Different states have different laws, forms and terms used in creating end of life documents such as living wills and durable powers of attorney. As such, it’s best to start by familiarizing yourself with your state’s requirements. In fact, a number of states offer all of the forms and advice you need to make your end of life plans right on their websites, free of charge. If you’re still not sure where to begin, check out Caring Connections, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which offers state-specific advance directives and instructional downloads.

In most cases, this is the kind of thing you can do entirely on your own. If you’d prefer a little guidance, however, an attorney can offer helpful tips and peace of mind. As part of our PerkShare® program, you can access a network of attorneys and legal services at a reduced rate through a service called LegalShield®.

There’s no time like the present

With so many free will-preparation resources available, now is the time to talk with your family to ensure your end of life plans are in order. Trust me, should you need them, you’ll be relieved to have one less thing to worry about.

Since my own health crisis, I’m resting far more easily knowing my living will and health care power of attorney documents are complete. Of course, I hope to never find myself in the ER with a life-threatening condition again. But if I do, I’ll take enormous comfort in knowing that when the nurse asks me if I have a living will or health care power of attorney, I can answer that question with a resounding “yes.”