Living Wills – Making Things Easier for Your Family at the End of Your Life
There have been media reports this week about the tragic case of Brenda Grant, an 81-year-old woman in England whose family received a £45,000 payout after her life had been artificially prolonged against her wishes.
Three months after suffering a severe stroke, Mrs Grant had been fitted with a stomach peg, which kept her alive for another nineteen months. What we now know, and what the hospital should have known from the outset, is that Mrs Grant had previously signed a living will, which clearly stated her refusal of this type of treatment.
A living will is a document that lists specific types of medical treatment that a person would not want to receive if they become seriously ill in the future, with no prospect of recovery, and they are no longer able to make their wishes known. It usually acknowledges that the refusal of treatment may shorten their life, and states that they “fear degradation and indignity more than death”.
Mrs Grant had signed a living will after watching her own mum’s health and independence decline through dementia. The hospital misplaced the document, so continued to sustain her life by feeding through the stomach peg, in ignorance of her confirmed wishes. Unfortunately, Mrs Grant hadn’t ever told her family about the living will, so they did not feel able to challenge the treatment until her GP became involved and alerted everyone to its existence. Living Wills are legally binding in England, which is why the hospital’s temporary loss of Mrs Grant’s document led to the £45,000 settlement to her family.
So how do living wills in Scotland differ from south of the Border?
Unlike in England, a living will is not legally binding in this country, but it is taken into consideration if someone cannot make their wishes known. Anyone who has the capacity to understand, make and communicate decisions has a legal right to refuse medical treatment, so living wills tend to cover end-of-life care, when a person is no longer able to give or refuse consent.
If you don’t have a living will, medical staff may decide what life-sustaining treatment you receive, without knowing your wishes.
We are seeing an increasing number of clients want to put these documents in place, but it is an incredibly personal decision for each individual to make. You should certainly think about doing so if you have concerns about receiving invasive medical intervention near the end of your life if you are incapable of refusing such treatment. A living will should give you peace of mind that you done what you can to ensure that your wishes will be respected.
They can also be a comfort for your family, as it may avoid disagreements about what they believe you would have wanted, and relieve them of the burden of contributing towards important medical choices about you.
If you do put a living will in place, it is advisable to inform your family, your GP, and any attorneys (if you have a welfare power of attorney in place), so that a situation like Mrs Grant’s will not arise – where her family had no idea about the lost document.
If you are interested in learning more about living wills, you should speak to your GP or solicitor.
As featured in the Sunday PostBack to news list