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Lack of estate planning can place a burden on relatives

Florida remains a popular destination for retirees, and issues concerning senior citizens are treated with importance in the state. A report published on Jan. 20 in JAMA Internal Medicine highlights a growing trend in healthcare where family members are left to make difficult medical decisions on behalf of elderly relatives who are no longer able to do so for themselves. The research team behind the report interviewed the doctors of 1,083 elderly hospital patients, and they found that only 7.4 percent of them had a living will in place. This lack of estate planning can put children and spouses in a difficult position, and it is a growing challenge for the healthcare industry.

Hospitals traditionally see relatives as visitors rather than people who will make decisions regarding treatment. However, the results of the study indicate that this attitude may need to change. Of the physicians interviewed, 47 percent said that a surrogate helped to make treatment choices, and all important medical decisions were made by somebody other than the patient 23 percent of the time.

In many cases the surrogates making these decisions are daughters. The research found that sons made treatment choices 25 percent of the time and spouses 21 percent of the time, but daughters were the family members deciding on treatment in 59 percent of the cases studied. The conclusion drawn was that prior discussion of these issues combined with prudent planning would ease the burden on both relatives and doctors.

The issues surrounding estate planning are often unpleasant to contemplate and difficult to talk about, but avoiding an uncomfortable subject may ultimately make things more challenging for all concerned. Discussing decisions like this and designating an individual to make them, can both ease the burden and lift the fear. An attorney with experience in estate planning may be able to offer advice on legal instruments such as living wills and powers of attorney, which could replace a sense of dread with a feeling of resolution.

Source: NBC News, "Daughters make more decisions on parents' care, study finds", Linda Carroll, January 20, 2014

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