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6 joyful steps for end-of-life planning

It isn’t just about wills and funerals — it is a reflection of your values, your goals for healthy aging, and the hopes and dreams you have for those you love

An illustration of someone watching the sunset from a tree branch.
(Abbey Lossing for The Washington Post)

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The new year is a time of fresh starts and beginnings. But it’s also a good time to plan for the end.

Planning for a health crisis and the end of life doesn’t have to be dreary. There is a lot of joy in organizing your final days, knowing that by being prepared, your final act will be one of guidance and support for your family members and other loved ones. End-of-life planning isn’t just about wills and funerals — it’s also a reflection of your values, your goals for healthy aging, and the hopes and dreams you have for those you love.

From experience, I can tell you that death is complicated for those left behind. Advance health directives are essential — and should be created when you are healthy, not from a hospital bed. Funeral arrangements are costly, and the details — from the type of service to your final resting place (coffin or urn? Burial plot or cremation?) — are dizzying. Your credit cards, bank accounts, utility bills, cellphone accounts and internet passwords can become a huge burden for those who survive you, if you haven’t planned ahead.

Here’s a simple checklist to help you get started.

  1. Create a crisis notebook: For me, choosing a binder where I could gather all my planning documents is what finally got me started. You will need to create additional hard and digital copies once you’ve made some progress. This AARP worksheet will get you started on compiling all the documents — medical, legal, financial and end-of-life — you need. It will take some time, but the worksheet is a great way to keep track of what you have left to do.
  2. Start by writing your advance directive: Go to the AARP website to find the right forms for your state. This step is the one that most benefits you directly and will help your family make medical decisions on your behalf. The website Five Wishes is also a popular resource, with easy-to-follow instructions for creating an advanced directive.
  3. Write a will: Gallup reports that less than half of Americans have a will. Without a will, the laws of the state will decide how your assets are distributed. Services such as Nolo, LegalZoom or Quicken Willmaker can help for a fee.
  4. Make a digital estate plan: This guide from AARP will help you manage utility accounts, credit cards and social media passwords.
  5. Plan your goodbye party: Having attended several funerals, I don’t want my survivors to incur the expense or burden of planning one. And I actually enjoyed researching the options and making goodbye plans for myself with a focus on a greener ending to my life than a traditional funeral and burial. I’ve picked a lovely black birch tree in the Berkshires through Better Place Forests to mark my final resting place.
  6. Add a last letter: VJ Periyakoil, a physician who specializes in geriatrics and palliative care at the Stanford University Medical Center, started the Stanford Letter Project, to give people the tools they need to write to their doctor, friends or family. You’ll find the template and sample letters at med.stanford.edu/letter.

Simple changes for better health

To help you get 2023 off to a healthy start, the Well+Being desk created stories explaining simple changes that offer big benefits for this year and beyond.

For better health this year, keep it simple

6 simple steps to build an exercise habit

The simple diet swap to help you lose weight and lower health risks

These 2-minute exercise bursts may be better than your regular workout

What causes your brain to procrastinate and how to face it

How CPR and finding an AED can save a life during cardiac arrest

Please let us know how we are doing. Email me at wellbeing@washpost.com.

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