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The problem with living wills

Most people know they should make out a living will, telling family members and others how you want to be treated in case you are incapacitated.

For instance, do you want your life to be prolonged using ventilators and feeding tubes, or do you want doctors to just let you go.

But -- a recent report from Kaiser Health News shows that people know they should state their preferences, or name a proxy to make those decisions for them, yet only about 37 percent actually do.

What if you have no idea?

One big reason for this reluctance is that people don't know what they want to happen, and they have a hard time envisioning being incapacitated. They're healthy, they eat right - why would they suddenly go into a coma?

The report quotes a soldier from the Iraq War who was required to write down on paper where he wanted his body sent if he were killed in battle or in an accident. Soldiers have an advantage over the rest of us. They understnd that life can end at any moment. Plus, they have the Army ordering them to fill out the form.

We're fortunate not to live dangerous lives, but every one of us is mortal. Incapacitation is never further away than a car speeding through an intersection.

Denial is a part of life

The Kaiser report said that people with serious ongoing illnesses like cancer or heart disease were barely more likely to fill out a living will than the rest of us. Denial is healthy in that we do not want to fixate morbidly on our demise.

But think of a living will as a favor to the people you love. If you are dying, it will help them to know what you think about keeping you alive if you:

  • Are in a vegetative state
  • Can only be kept alive via breathing and feeding tubes
  • Have suffered severe brain damage
  • Are too demented to understand what is happening to you

Whatever you decide is what's right

There is nothing wrong with whatever decision you make on a living will. But it is a mercy to your loved ones to know how you thought about this life-and-death issue. If you care for them, put it down on paper.

You can fill out a living will online, but they give you little leeway to describe the situation you foresee for yourself. A proper living will walks you through a number of scenarios and asks you to be specific about your wishes.

Is it fun?

No. But your family will love you for taking this onerous decision from them.

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