Time to prepare for your death: Tips on thinking ahead

Getting your house in order may not be your most pressing concern, but it will be of great benefit to your grieving family, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

It may be the last thing you want to do, but choosing a time to sit down and plan ahead for your death will protect your mourning loved ones from the stress of having to guess what you may have wanted. And who knows, it may provide some peace of mind for you too.

Attendees at the 2009 Irish Hospice Foundation’s Forum on End of Life identified that there was little guidance for this process, and input from attending groups gave rise to the Think Ahead form.

“The Think Ahead document is really very well put together,” Justice Catherine McGuinness, who was involved in planning the form, says. “You can look at it yourself, and talk to close friends and family, and really give yourself time to think and discuss it.” The Think Ahead form, along with further advice and information, can be ordered by post from The Irish Hospice Foundation and is available to download for free from www.thinkahead.ie

Here are some tips based on the contents of the form:

What about funeral arrangements?

Have you considered organ donation, or donating your body for medical research? Would you prefer to opt for burial, or cremation? Do you have religious or spiritual beliefs that you want honoured in a funeral ceremony? In many ways, these questions are the first that we associate with planning for death but they may often be the most straightforward. Try to leave simple, clear instructions.

Practical matters – are my affairs in order?

Tasks like cancelling subscriptions, deciding who should care for pets and dealing with financial institutions can be difficult for family members. Leave clear instructions about practical aspects such as the location of important documents, to ease the path for your mourning family.

All adults should have a will detailing what they want to happen to their property after their death. These can be simple documents, but are only valid if they meet certain criteria, such as having two witnesses who are not potential beneficiaries of the will.

Get legal advice for your will if your personal life has complexities like separation followed by subsequent relationships, or disabled dependents. If you can’t afford to pay for legal advice, seek Free Legal Aid. If you have substantial assets, you should also seek advice on tax implications. You should appoint a legal guardian for any children under 18 in a will.

Awarding Enduring Power of Attorney (EPA) to someone you trust will enable them to make many practical decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated, but not decisions relating to your healthcare; see the section below on Advance Healthcare Directives.

The form contains sections on legal and financial matters and is an excellent checklist for practical considerations of your death. Bear in mind the completed form will contain a lot of sensitive information and should be stored safely.

Should I write an Advance Healthcare Directive?

74% of Irish people want to die at home, but only 26% will. How can you be sure that your wishes for the end of your life will be respected if you are incapacitated and unable to express them? An Advance Healthcare Directive (AHD) is a legally binding document that protects your right to refuse treatments when you can’t communicate. Healthcare workers must respect them.

You can specify treatments you don’t want to receive; it’s important to avoid vague terms like “a natural death”.

List scenarios you feel strongly about; if your heart stops beating, would you like to be resuscitated, for example?

An AHD can be written at any age and is useful in the case of unexpected accidents as well as terminal illnesses. Remember your preferences may change over time; how you feel about resuscitation may differ depending on whether you have young children, for example. Revisit the document at life’s milestones to make sure you still feel the same.

Your AHD can nominate a Designated Healthcare Representative if you wish, who can have the power to consent to or refuse treatments on your behalf. A DHR should be chosen with care and they should be well-informed as to your preferences.

Store your AHD in a safe place and inform your GP and family members of its existence and location. An AHD must be signed, dated, and witnessed by at least two people over 18; one of these people should be someone other than a relative or your attorney. Anyone can compose their own AHD, but The Irish Hospice Foundation’s Think Ahead form contains an excellent template.

Have I considered my digital legacy?

Social media notifications from deceased loved ones can be distressing or bizarre for bereaved friends and family. In a world where we are likely to leave behind a large digital footprint, it’s worth considering the lasting impact of this online presence on friends and family.

You could appoint a digital executor, and tell them how you’d like your online presence managed after your death. Does the idea of an eternity of junk-mail fill you with dread? Would you like your social media accounts cancelled, or would you prefer to entrust account passwords to a loved one to be used as an online memorial?

Google permits the assignation of an “inactive account manager,” while Facebook has the facility for a “legacy contact”. The website Everplans has an alphabetised directory of 180 different online tools and platforms with instructions on how to close each: www.everplans.com/articles/how-to-close-online-accounts-and-services-when-someone-dies 


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