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McEntee: End-of-life directives are essential for those who love you

Published January 10, 2012 8:04 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

First, let me say this: I haven't gotten around to assigning a health care proxy or written an advance health care directive or, for that matter, a will.

There's just always too much of everything to work on, to read, to clean. But for someone who has watched her parents leave this world in pain and despair, it's inexcusable.

Just over six years ago, our mother was in a medical nursing home in central California, enduring the last stages of Alzheimer's disease.

I had flown out to see her, our dad and our older brother and sister, who had cared for her for years. When we went to the home, I did not recognize her.

She was impossibly gaunt and strapped into a wheelchair, surrounded by other patients in much the same condition. At dinner time, I fed her a few spoonfuls before she turned her head away.

Mother tried to speak but couldn't. My dad tried to jolly her up, and in one instant of seeming cognition she glared at him fiercely before the veil dropped again.

A day or so later, as I was heading to the airport to go home, I stopped to see her again.

She was in bed, the covers tucked neatly around her. Her breathing seemed labored, and she did not respond to my voice. I stayed awhile, stroking her arms and face, telling her about her granddaughter and how much I loved her.

When I got home, I alerted my sisters in Chicago and Germany, and my brother in Florida. All raced to Fresno, and I bought another plane ticket, too.

Mother died at 2 a.m. on the morning I was to arrive. She had developed pneumonia, the old woman's friend.

A few years later, our dad was gravely ill with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was in and out of hospitals or nursing homes for years. He had filed an advance directive with the Veterans Administration hospital, but found himself in a community hospital during one crisis.

But because that document was not portable, his doctor asked if he did or did not want a do-not-resuscitate order. Dad had a hard time deciding, but in that episode he got well enough to go to an assisted living center, where he died in August 2009.

As my colleague Patty Henetz wrote in Sunday's Tribune, even people with sound minds but failing bodies can find it difficult to make their end-of-life wishes known, let alone realized. But, as she reported, there are ways.

They include revocable living trusts, advance directives, Utah Physician Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST). The University of Utah Center on Aging website has information on planning, and can be reached at aging.utah.edu/directives.

I don't know if our mother even knew, before the Alzheimer's crept in, if she could have made some statement about what she wanted when death neared. All of us kids do remember she would often say that if she got to a point when someone had to wipe the drool off her chin, it was time to let her go.

Ours is an ever-growing aging population made ever larger by the baby boomer generation, and it's happening right now. The recognition of that has led intelligent, dedicated people to create the tools that will help all of us make our last wishes known.

It's not just for us. Just knowing what a loved one wants at life's end will comfort those who not only love us, but those who take care of us.

If I have to put a sticky note on my forehead to remind me, I'll be filing a directive as soon as possible. Above all, I owe it to our daughter.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee, and follow her on Twitter @PegMcEntee.






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