NEW YORK (MainStreet) Some 90% of seniors think it's important to plan their end-of-life decisions but only 30% of those people actually had open discussions about facing death, according to a Conversation Project survey.
"End of life is grueling for many, because it's scary," said Wendy Witt, director with Wealth Counsel's Advisors Forum. "It centers around all those things that make us very uncomfortable and fearful such as illness, dying, death, money and family."
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Kasey Casem entertained radio listeners for nearly 40 years as the host of countdown shows such as American Top 40 and Casey's Top 40, and despite having some advanced planning documents in place, the 82-year-old died on June 15 with a bitter legal battle raging on around him.
"Casey Kasem did take action to reduce prevent family discord but unfortunately it wasn't enough," Witt told MainStreet.
Baby Boomers are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day, according to the Pew Research Center and people over 65 years old are expected to make up 20% of the total U.S. population by 2050, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.
While the number of end of life disputes is rising with the aging of the American population, they can be minimized with detailed advance planning.
"The best way to prevent family discord, litigation and elder abuse is to name the appropriate people in trusted roles," said Witt. "A health care agent, for example, must be able to communicate effectively with medical professionals and family members but be sure to name a back up health care agent in case your primary agent is unwilling or unable to act at the time."
Kasem reportedly suffered from a progressive brain disorder called Lewy body dementia and was worth an estimated $80 million. He had expressed his wishes to pull the plug if he were ever to be in a comatose state and his daughter Kerri did just that after a judge ruled that the aging celebrity's medical care would remain in her hands as the agent in his Power of Attorney for health care. But the radio hosts' second wife, Jean Kasem, is reportedly accusing Kasem's daughter of killing her husband for the insurance payout.
"There is virtually always tension between a spouse and children from a previous relationship and if there's money or control involved, the tension deepens exponentially," Witt said.
The complication emerged in the Kasem family when Jean claimed Kasem had changed his mind and did not want anyone to pull the plug, but there were no witnesses these claims.
"While no family dispute can ever be absolutely avoided, the more conversations and discussions about health and end of life decisions, the better," said Barry Kozak, director of elder law programs at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
Jean Kasem allegedly grabbed her husband out of Berkley East Convalescent Hospital in California on May 7.
"It will be interesting to discover what action the nursing home took when Kasem's wife, Jean, removed him from their care in the middle of the night," Witt said. "I would suggest she didn't have the legal authority to move him if he was incapacitated at the time."
Unfortunately, when an elderly relative is in a retirement facility, matters can get even more complicated.
"If the facility itself becomes part of the problem, then a good attorney needs to be consulted so that appropriate intervention and litigation can be initiated," Kozak told MainStreet.
A newer form of advanced care directive is a Physician's Order for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST).
"The patient discusses with his or her doctor how certain chronic illnesses are expected to advance and makes binding decisions now about future treatment as the illness or disease progresses," said Kozak.
Another preventive measure is to appoint two medical power of attorneys with one being a close family member and another being a friend.
"Hold family meetings and explain who's in charge of what and when," Witt advises. "Address any negative reactions at the time. It's a tough but necessary conversation."
Updating estate planning documents annually can also help address changes in marriage, assets and law.
"All states have programs for the elderly but as state budgets ebb and flow what might look like the most appealing state for the elderly today might change focus and be the worst in a few years," Kozak said.
Although not guaranteed and often challenged, passing away with dignity is a human right in most countries.
"The best place for any individual to reach their end of life is the place where they feel comfortable and out of danger, have access to their desired social interactions with family and friends and have the ability to be as mobile as possible with or without assistance from others," said Kozak.
--Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet