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Talking about death makes many of us uncomfortable. But by avoiding the subject, it might just make things worse when the time comes. Talking with your loved ones about your Will, Advance Care Directive and other wishes is important for you and for them.
Audrey Bourget and Ildiko Dauda

2 Aug 2017 - 11:44 AM  UPDATED 2 Aug 2017 - 6:56 PM

We spend our whole life planning: career, birth, vacations, even the meals for the week. So why so few people have a plan for the end of their life?

An end-of-life plan is about making sure that your wishes are respected and that those around you know what to do.

Jessie Williams is the Executive Director of the GroundSwell Project, a not-for-profit organisation wanting to change how we view death. She says that most people never tell anyone their end-of-life wishes.

"Most of us will have what we call a 'medicalised death' so with very good medical care we will have a death or dying experience that we may want to have a say in. So for example, you know, some people they'd like to be in a hospital for their dying experience and they want the best medical care, but other people, it's the last place they want to be."

She encourages people to clearly tell their loved ones what they want.

"I think the most important thing is to have a conversation with your friend and family. We often hear from people who work in health services or palliative care or emergency in hospitals that people are coming in at a very stressful time in their life and they've never actually spoken to their friends or family who are coming with them about what's most important to them. So we really encourage you to have a chat about what's important to you, what are your values."

If you're listening and you don't have an end-of-life plan, Jessie Williams says that now is the moment to get started.

"There's no age for it. I think, the earlier the better. We want to have those conversations when we're well. I think many people see marriage or a baby as a trigger point to get their end-of-life plan together. Certainly, the numbers go up the older we get. But you know, things can happen at any time, so I'd say if you're in your 30s and 40s, it's definitely a good time to get those plans together."

One of the things that you'll have to think about is making a Will. In many countries, when somebody dies, their property or assets are automatically given to the family. But in Australia, making a Will is the only way you can ensure your assets will be distributed according to your wishes.

Solicitor Nalika Padmasena, from The Aged Rights Service in New South Wales, strongly recommends that you get independent legal advice.

"It is important that your intentions are expressed clearly to reduce the chances of arguments as to who gets what. For this reason, it is better to have a solicitor or the NSW trustee or a private trustee draft the Wills. We do not recommend using a Will-kit. You can buy the Will-kit from newsagents or Post office, but we don't recommend using that Will-kit."

Your Will should be specific and kept up to date. It will last until you die or until you change it or revoke it. Nalika Padmasena says it's important to change your Will when circumstances change.

"You should make changes to your Will or make a new Will if certain events occur in your life such as if you marry or you divorce or your major beneficiary dies or you have children or grandchildren. So in those circumstances, you need to get legal advice and make necessary changes to your Will. Especially when you remarry, the marriage invalidates an existing Will if it doesn't contemplate the marriage."

You should also think about having a Living Will or Advance Care Directive, which is a document stating your wishes for end-of-life medical care, in case you're no longer in a state to make those decisions.

"It is a form which sets the medical care you wish to receive or not receive, in case you're no longer able to speak for yourself. Or make decisions for yourself. It is also advisable that you fill in this form in consultation with your doctor because your doctor knows your medical history. It is particularly important when you have a progressive illness or life-limiting illness or terminal condition. You can give general and specific instructions in that document about the treatment, such as resuscitation, life support or artificial feeding. So these are the things that you can decide to, whether you want to carry on or not."

She says it's important to let those around you know that you made the document.

"We suggest the document must be specific, current in writing, signed by you and witnessed. If witnessed by your doctor, he or she can testify as to your capacity and also they can explain the treatment they provide to you. It is best to let the doctor and the hospital and your family and your guardian and the aged care facility know about your wishes, that you make that document and that you have completed and signed the Advance care Directive. You should let them know where the original is kept and must provide a copy to them."

There are a few more things you'll want to discuss with your loved ones, like the kind of funeral you desire and if you want to donate your organs.

The GroundSwell Project's Jessie Williams says that they've created Dying to Know Day, on August 8th, to help start these discussions.

"If it does feel uncomfortable, the best way to have a conversation about death and dying, just crack the ice, just do it. Because it's actually not as bad as you think it's going to be. And we find that most people once the topic is on the table, most people have an interest in the idea of talking about it, most people want to have the conversation. I think our fears can stop us from having the conversation, but I would encourage everybody and anybody just to break the ice and once you've done that, you're on your way."

Dozens of events are happening around Australia for Dying to Know Day, on August 8th. It's a good opportunity to start your end-of-life plan and chat to your family.

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