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Helping People Meet Aging-Related Legal and Care Challenges


Avoiding the Anguish

An Open Letter from Ed Long, H.E.L.P. Executive Director
[posted July 24, 2001]

Robert Wendland, age 49, suffered severe brain damage in a car accident in 1993. On July 17, 2001, eight years after his accident, he died while his family's painful and extended court battle continued at the California Supreme Court. A focus of the battle had become "What would Robert want?"

Go back ten years. Nancy Cruzan, age 32, suffered severe brain damage in a car accident in 1983. In December 1990, eight years after her accident, she died. She died after her family completed a painful and extended court battle through the Missouri courts and the United States Supreme Court. The focus of the battle became "What would Nancy want?"

Two and one-half million Americans die each year. The vast majority are older adults. For many, the months or days preceding death involve incapacity and a loss of control over decisions about their care. Families make decisions for them. And do so without knowing what was wanted, or what wasn't wanted. More anguish.
Years of anguish for the Cruzan family. Years of anguish for the Wendland  family. Will there be years of anguish for your family? For mine?
You and I can avoid inflicting this anguish on our families. We can make our own final days consistent with the life we choose to live. The Cruzan family's experience and suffering supported changes in the laws in California and elsewhere. Under the law today, we each need to take two steps:
  • Sign a legal document called a Power of Attorney for Health Care, naming family members or friends (our "Agents") to speak for us, if we can't speak for ourselves.
  • Figure out and communicate with our Agents about our feelings on medical treatment and our views on what makes life worth living, and what would make it not worth living.
The legal and communication tools are readily available. For our own peace, and for the comfort of our families, we need to use them.
Many hospitals will provide copies of the the Power of Attorney for Health Care form. Aging with Dignity (Florida) provides its "Five Wishes" living will form at a nominal charge.
Thanks to the generosity of The Ahmanson Foundation, H.E.L.P. provides (without charge) both a simplified Power of Attorney for Health Care form, and a plain-language communication tool called "Your Way." 
Rest in peace, Nancy. To Nancy's family, thank you for fighting the fight that made it easier for the rest of us.
Rest in peace, Robert.  To Robert's family, thank you for reminding us that we and our families can avoid your anguish.


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This page gives general information, not specific advice on individual matters. Persons wanting specific legal advice on matters discussed should contact an attorney experienced in those matters. Information given is based on law and programs in effect in California at the time the item was posted.


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