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Life has value even as the end approaches

June 14, 2004|by Susan Lyons

When facing a serious illness or terminal condition, it is not too late to plan for the future. People still can take some time to consider what is important, what is valued and what can be let go of.

For some people, autonomy and self-reliance are priorities. For these people, it is vital to have an advance directive document, such as a will, durable power of attorney for health care and a plan for funeral services. Others may feel completely at ease leaving these details to a spouse or adult child.

In any case, these things can be discussed with the people who will be in a position to make decisions. If there are no immediate family or close relatives available, a trusted friend may assist with end-of-life planning. These conversations are not easy, but the toughest part tends to be the beginning.

Family or friends may be reluctant to discuss these topics. Those who are ready for the discussion need to broach the subject: "I know this is really hard for you, but this is very important to me."

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When the words won't come, it may be necessary to have someone help facilitate the conversation: clergy, a social worker, a nurse, or someone who might be more neutral but compassionate, such as a concerned neighbor, family friend or an attorney.

Physicians must be alerted to advance directives or whether or not a person has been designated to make decisions. With these details resolved, people with a serious illness or terminal condition may feel better about pursuing enjoyable activities to make the most of the good days.

In the quiet times, it can be a positive experience to write letters or keep a journal. As many wise people have said, "You are living while you're dying." Even when life is nearing an end, the prospect for growth remains.

Susan Lyons is a palliative care specialist and a member of the Health Management Department at Washington County Hospital.

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