Recognizing the Importance of Living Wills

By Erin Delmore

“Do you want pain medication to be kept comfortable? It’s a difficult conversation to have because we are contemplating someone’ mortality,” said Shirley Whitenack, partner at Schenck, Price, Smith and King, LLP and co-chair of the Elder and Special Needs Law Practice Group.

End-of-life care is something few New Jerseyans are prepared for.

A new Rutgers-Eagleton and New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute poll shows that while a lot of New Jerseyans have discussed end-of-life care with their loved ones, far fewer have actually written a living will. Around six in 10 say they’re comfortable thinking about getting older. Same goes for talking about it. But just as many people have avoided writing it down.

“New Jerseyans are thinking about and talking about end-of-life care and medical treatment plans if they had a terminal illness or were in severe pain, but what they’re not actually doing is writing anything down or taking actions or accumulating the knowledge of possibilities that are available to them when it comes to end-of-life care,” said Ashley Koning, assistant director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

Senior citizens are the most likely to have put thought into end-of-life care — 65 percent of them have put their wishes in writing. Just under 50 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds have taken that step and only half as many 30- to 49-year-olds. Just 17 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds have written down their directives. Whitenack says everyone over 18 needs to have a living will.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re ill or not ill. It’s really a gift that you give to your loved ones so that they know that if this happens, they know what your wishes are and how to effectuate them,” Whitenack said.

While a lot of people have heard about hospice care or palliative care, far fewer have heard of advance care planning documents and for a lot of people, that first step is taken at a hospital.

“About 10 years ago, I had to go to the hospital for a procedure and they asked me if I had one and I said no. At that time, I thought it over and I said it’s about time that I did do one,” said Kenneth Brenner of Franklin Lakes.

Kenneth and Judy Brenner have been married for more than four decades. She’s the executor of his living will.

“I don’t think it’s fair to anybody in the family to be, somebody has to be looking over you in a hospital bed every day of your life,” he said. “I don’t want to be kept alive any way artificially. If I can’t function normally, I don’t want to be kept alive.”

New Jerseyans are less likely to use hospice care and more likely to die in a health care facility than are residents of almost any other state.

“We have a statute in New Jersey that makes this a legal thing to do and we have doctors and nurses and health care providers that want to know what people’s wishes are because they don’t want to play God,” Whitenack said.

Whitenack says people don’t have to go through an attorney. You can create a living will at a hospital, or you can simply write your wishes down. Have two witnesses sign the document — make sure neither one of them is your power of attorney. It’s even better to get it notarized.