Health Care Decisions and “That Conversation”

This Shabbat, April 15-16, coincides with National Health Care Decision Day. (April 16). This is a day set aside to remind people of the importance of having a conversation among family and friends regarding your wishes as they relate to the end of life. This issue has continued to be one of increasing importance, especially among Baby Boomers. Perhaps it is our desire to exert control even at the end of our life? Perhaps it is in reaction to what many of us observed in dealing with parents? Or, it may be a combination of issues that make the need to develop a comprehensive “care plan” essential. SO many of our families are scattered. Increasingly, people live alone and may not have a support system at hand.

The impact of medical technology on end of life issues has also brought this issue to the forefront and, as we are witnessing, increasing numbers of state legislatures are discussing laws that aid “choice in dying”. Just this week, Canada’s Prime Minister has put forth a bill that would, in certain cases, legalize this in that country. Success with books like Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” also highlight the interest in how we face our own end. And, the workshop on Making Sacred Decisions at the End of Life continues to be one of the most requested from Jewish Sacred Aging.

Having or even starting these discussions is not easy. The initial “trial balloon” I sent up with some of my own family were met with quick deflection. Yet, as many families and almost every clergy person will attest, making sure your plans are discussed, written down and understood is really, in my opinion, a modern “mitzvah”, not only for us, but for families. It is important to know that every major Jewish denomination has come forward in support of us having advanced medical directives and health care powers of attorney. Likewise, these denominations support hospice and palliative care. A reading of classic and contemporary Responsa illustrate how traditional “halacha” has approached and favored these issues. Thankfully, there are a growing number of resources available to each of us to aid these conversations.

Click here to get a downloadable package of forms, drawn from a book that we did for URJ (A Time to Prepare) that can be used or adapted to aid in the discussions.(see Programs and Resources on this site) These are forms that ask about everything from where important papers are, to sample letters to government agencies (social security, veterans, etc) to wishes for funeral. These Life Data forms can serve as the beginning of the process.


Also available (and we will be posting these soon) are detailed forms for end of life wishes regarding medical treatment. There are secular forms, such as The Five Wishes, as well as some drawn from denominations.

This is a difficult conversation to begin. Yet, to begin to think about what you wish to have happen may bring you and your caregivers comfort, direction and peace in their desire to honor and sanctify life.

Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min

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