Talking to your doctor about end-of-life care
SALT LAKE CITY — According to a study by The Conversation Project, 90% of Americans believe that talking to their loved ones about end-of-life care is important. But the same study found that only 27% of respondents have actually had the conversation.
“It’s a difficult topic to talk about,” said Dr. Chad Bittner, speaking with KSL NewsRadio’s Maria Shilaos. “You are talking about how to make decisions for when you’re at the end of your life.”
It’s important to discuss and document your preferences for end-of-life care, Bittner said, for the benefit of both yourself and your loved ones.
“Things can change very quickly and put you in a situation where you can’t speak for yourself,” Bittner explained. “If you haven’t discussed this with others and written it down on paper as to what your wishes are, very few people, if any, are going to know what you want done.”
“That’s extremely stressful, not only for you, but for loved ones, family members and even your healthcare providers,” he continued.
If you haven’t considered or relayed your wishes in the event of an accident or unexpected decline, Bittner offered these tips.
Consider your wishes privately
“My advice is to first just start thinking about the conversation,” Bittner told Shilaos. “What do you want done in case you need life-sustaining treatment?”
Designate an advocate
“When you’re ready to sit down and have the conversation, choose an advocate, somebody you trust — maybe a family member or a trusted friend — to sit down and start having that conversation and put your thoughts together,” Bittner said.
Involving a family member or friend in your conversation is advantageous to you, Bittner explained, but also to that person — having direct insight into your end-of-life wishes can ease potential stress on them by equipping them to fulfill your desires more confidently.
“It’s important to start that conversation before you even sit down with your doctor so you have an understanding of what you want done and what your family members’ decision-making process is going to be,” Bittner said.
Use forms to guide your conversation with your doctor
When you are ready to speak with your doctor, Bittner recommended using one of several forms to guide the conversation. The standard “Physician’s Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment,” or POLST form, is an option, Bittner said, as is a less formal version on the Conversation Project’s website.
“It can help you start talking and walking through a more relaxed form to answer those questions and talk about what needs to be discussed,” Bittner said of the form.
Document your wishes
While end-of-life wishes are different than a will, it’s still important to keep them written down, Bittner said.
“If you’re in a situation where you can’t speak for yourself, someone is going to need to speak for you,” he said. “And in order to do that, they have to know what your wishes are.”
Bittner emphasized that writing your wishes down is not the same as setting them in stone, and that you can change them at any time.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind tomorrow or ten minutes from now,” he said. “It’s just about starting that conversation.”
Start conversations sooner rather than later
It’s fully appropriate to discuss these things with your adult children and even teens, Bittner said.
“When you’re younger, you think you’re invincible. You think ‘this is never going to happen to me,’ or ‘I’m never going to be in one of these situations.’ But an accident can occur at any moment,” Bittner said. “It’s never too early to start talking about these things.”
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