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Family communication key to honoring end of life directives, say local experts

The case of Terri Schiavo's last days which made national news earlier this year is causing local elders concern that their end of life wishes might not be honored.

The Schiavo case, involving a comatose woman whose family was divided on the issue of how to deal with ending her life, has left a lot people thinking more about their end of life issues, said the organizers of Thursday night's seminar dealing with health care directives and the legalities of such directives.

The informational seminar held at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Sunnyside offered people the opportunity to discuss what steps they should take in order to ensure their final wishes are honored.

"The Terri Schiavo case has brought into focus many of the concerns people have about how they will live the last days of their life," said Father Doug Simonsen of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

He said these days it has become very important for individuals to leave specific instructions concerning how long they want to be kept mechanically alive. Simonsen, who along with Sunnyside attorney Steve Winfree and Dr. John Allen, discussed the legalities of health care directives, power of attorney issues and HIPAA privacy issues with those attending Thursday night's seminar.

Most persons expect their children to concur with their desires in the final moments of their lives, but that is not always the case, as the Schiavo care has clearly made apparent, said Simonsen.

Even in the cases where patients go to the trouble of having notarized directives filed with both family physicians and health care centers, families still can be divided during the last hours of a family member's life, cautioned Winfree.

"But having the health care directive, commonly referred to as a living will, and a health care power of attorney in place will add weight to your wishes being honored," he said.

Allen, who specializes in geriatric care, said it is very important for patients to discuss their end of life issues with their family doctors. "We want you to let us know what your wishes are," he said.

"Of even greater importance is making sure you talk with your family members about your end of life wishes," Allen added.

"Too often the person put in charge of your last wishes don't honor them because family members can't let go," said Allen.

Winfree said that is why it is important to discuss the issue in advance of a crisis situation.

"Make sure your directives are in place and that a health care power of attorney has been signed, as well as a personal agent named to carry out those directives," he urged.

"Should the matter go to court, judges will be able to see that you were in your right mind when you made your directives," Winfree explained.

In addition, Winfree suggested people also file additional letters of concerns with their attorney or physician if they still have concerns.

Winfree suggested people visit the National Hospice Association web site for more information in dealing with family end of life issues.

"The web site offers detailed discussion points concerning end of life care issues," he explained.

Winfree also suggested people who already have directives in place review them periodically.

"These are not simple questions and your views may change over time," he said. "Communication with family members, as well as your doctor, is the real key to having your wishes honored in the end," he said.

Simonsen said a second seminar will be held Thursday, June 16, at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church for those who missed last night's program. He said the public is invited to attend the 7 p.m. seminar, which will include examples of death and dying directives documents.

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