Essential Facts of Life… and Death

“How shall we live, knowing we will die?”

When Henry David Thoreau sat in his little cabin in the woods, he wasn’t receiving counsel from his attorney about his flight from eighteenth-century objective truth. Free from such meddlers, Thoreau mused about existence, the art of living deliberately “…to front only essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I had not lived.”

It’s safe to say that Thoreau’s “essential facts” didn’t include advance directives, living wills, or quality of life as it relates to the checkbook. Why would they? In Thoreau’s day the average life span was 47. Leading causes of death were influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and enteritis. In the mid-1800s, life support meant the family who shared a table and the beams that held a house together, not a steel bedside box. Thoreau’s death of tuberculosis at 44 is a portrait of terminal illness eighteenth-century style: no ventilators, feeding tubes, or Big Pharma drug trials. Death was unimpeded by machines and decisive in its agenda.

We approach death very differently today. Planning or not planning for life’s end is deeply personal and remarkably unique to the individual. The menu of live-sustaining technologies that exists pressures even the most recalcitrant to consider the hypotheticals: What if I were in a coma? Would I want to be kept alive? Under what circumstances? Who would watch over me? What are my wishes?

Consider these facts from recent surveys by the Conversation Project and the California HealthCare Foundation:

90% of people say that talking with loved one about end-of-care is important.

27% have actually done so.

80% of people say that if seriously ill, they would want to talk to their doctor about wishes for medical treatment toward the end of their life.

7% report having this conversation with their doctor.

60% of people say that making sure their family isn’t burdened with tough decisions is extremely important.

56% have not communicated their end-of-life wishes.

82% of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing.

23% have actually done it.

In the last twenty years as an attorney, I’ve met with hundreds of clients whose lives have been abruptly altered by unforeseen events, including the loss of a loved one or the reality of their own mortality. Overwhelmingly, those who have discussed the “essential facts” rest easier. If you’d like to learn more about the details of end-of-life planning, stay tuned to the upcoming Locals Guide articles on advance directives, living wills, and other “essential facts” so that you may, in the words of Thoreau, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

Robert (Bob) Good has practiced law in Jackson County for over twenty years, specializing in family law, estate planning and business law. Contact him at his Ashland office at (541) 482-3763.