Public Opinion Polls and End-of-Life Decisions

A living will is part and parcel of estate planning.

A living will is part and parcel of estate planning.

Have you thought more about end-of-life decisions since the recent debate over health care? While some individuals claim that the health care bill (or variations of that bill) carry information about ‘death panels,’ you can rest assured that this term is not used in any terminology. In fact, even some Republican leaders have debunked that myth, as end-of-life decisions also include how to prolong life as well as when the individual – not the government – wants that life to end. Additionally, according to some public opinion polls, Americans overwhelmingly support an individual’s right to decide whether he or she wants to be kept alive through medical treatment.

The Pew Research Center released some figures in August that reveal how some Americans felt about end-of-life decisions even before the health care debate began. Here are some highlights:

  • In a 2005 Pew Research Center survey, 84 percent said they approved of laws which say medical treatment that is keeping a terminally ill patient alive can be stopped if that is what the patient desires. In addition, 70 percent said there are some circumstances when a patient should be allowed to die, while 22 percent said doctors and nurses should always do everything possible to save the life of a patient.
  • In the same Pew Research survey a narrow majority (53 percent) said if they were faced with a terminal illness and were suffering a great deal of physical pain they would choose to stop medical treatment, 34 percent said they would ask their doctor to do everything possible to save their life.
  • In that same survey, older adults are more likely to have discussed their [living] will and what to do with family belongings than they are to have discussed end-of-life medical decisions (76 percent have discussed their will with their children). The elderly usually are the ones to initiate a discussion about end-of-life decisions with their children rather than the other way around. With that said, white adults with parents age 65 or older are more likely than black or Hispanic adults with aging parents to have discussed this issue.
  • On the other hand, perceptions are difficult to fathom. This survey showed that, “while a narrow majority of adults (52 percent) who have discussed these topics with their parents say it was their parents who initiated the conversations, fully a quarter say they themselves brought up these topics. In this way their perceptions differ from the older adults surveyed, most of whom say they are the ones to bring up these sometimes delicate subjects.”
  • Younger people tend to think about making a living will, but often do not carry that thought into action.

The article states:

One way to insure that an individual’s desires about end-of-life medical care are carried out is to put them in writing. Nearly all Americans know what a “living will” is, and most have given at least some thought to their own wishes regarding medical treatment at the end of their life. In the 2005 Pew Research survey, 35 percent said they’ve given this a great deal of thought and 36 percent said they’ve given it some thought. Even so, only 27 percent said they have put their wishes in writing and 29 percent said they have a living will. Though, this represented a significant increase from 1990 when even fewer — 12 percent — had some sort of living will. Not surprisingly, older people are more likely than young people to have thought about these issues and to have formalized their wishes. Half of those ages 65 and older (51 percent) say their wishes for medical treatment are written down and 54 percent say they have a living will.

So, despite the knowledge that people can take control over end-of-life decisions, few have practiced their right to do so. This lack of directive for life or death leaves your fate in the hands of others. Learn more about living wills at What is a Living Will?

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