Dr. Murray Feingold: Take care of your future; create a living will

Dr. Murray Feingold

When you are young you think you will live forever. You usually don't think about dying or the manner in which you will die.

Then, before you know it, you are not as young anymore.

You hear about some of your friends, who are the same age as you, dying from a brain tumor or breast cancer.

All of a sudden you begin to realize you are not immortal.

You look at your own family. Your father died of a heart attack at age 70. Or your mother, at age 75, is in failing health and spends a lot of time seeing many doctors.

Now, death and dying have become a part of your life. At times, it may even be depressing.

You recall how some friends and family members experienced long drawn-out and agonizing deaths. You don't want this to happen to you.

So what can you do, if you become seriously ill, to improve your chances of having your wishes concerning how you want to die be carried out?

An increasing number of people are now making what is called an "advanced directive document." This document, which includes a living will, contains information regarding a person's end of life wishes and the use of life-sustaining treatment.

It also includes the name of the person who will be your surrogate decision maker if you are no longer capable of making a rational decision for yourself.

But do these documents actually work? A recent study tried to answer this question. Almost 4,000 older individuals were studied.

Forty-two percent of them eventually became sick enough to require them to make decisions concerning their end-of-life care, including the life-sustaining measures they did or did not want.

Results of the study showed that at the time they had to make these decisions, 70 percent of them lacked the ability or capacity to do so. This is where a living will comes into play.

The majority of the people who had living wills requested comfort care, and 97 percent received such care. Eighty-three percent who stipulated in their living will that they wanted limited care received it.

Those who had surrogate decision makers were less likely to die in a hospital than those who did not have such decision makers.

Therefore, living wills are important in implementing a person's wishes concerning their end-of-life care.

Greater effort must be made to educate people concerning the availability and need of having a living will.

Massachusetts-based Dr. Murray Feingold is the physician in chief of The Feingold Center for Children, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.