This year marks the sixth anniversary of Terri Schiavo’s death and the end of a seven-year legal battle over her end-of-life care. In the absence of any documentation outlining this 41-year-old woman’s wishes concerning her own health-care treatment, her family — and ultimately the court — was left to decide for her.

Countless families across the country have found themselves in similar situations, burdened with making difficult end-of-life health-care decisions for loved ones of all ages. Much of this could be prevented if people let their loved ones know their wishes in an advance directive, also known as a “living will” or health-care power of attorney.

This Saturday, April 16, Santa Barbara will join the rest of the country in celebrating National Healthcare Decisions Day. The annual observance is aimed at increasing the number of Americans who have completed an advance directive in which they name the person who will make medical decisions for them in the event they are seriously ill and can’t speak for themselves.

“It’s understandable that people would put off discussing the topic of serious illness and death, but it’s essential to have this family conversation in advance,” said Lynda Tanner, president and chief executive officer of Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care, which encourages patients and families to have a conversation about end-of-life decisions before it’s too late.

“It’s a discussion that should take place in the living room, not in the hospital waiting room when a patient is no longer in a position to make decisions on their own.”

To help patients and families navigate the end-of-life care decision-making process, VNHC uses Aging with Dignity’s Five Wishes® advance directive program, America’s most popular living will with more than 14 million copies in national circulation. The 12-page document is easy to use and deals with personal, family and spiritual matters in addition to medical and legal concerns.

“The Five Wishes booklet was given to our daughter by the Palliative Care team at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital,” said a patient from Santa Ynez. “It was a tremendous help to confirm what her wishes were in terms of care and comfort measures as she went onto hospice care. It was invaluable for us as a family to discuss some sensitive areas as well as joyful for the opportunity to share with each other how she would want to be remembered.”

To receive a copy of the Five Wishes advance directive booklet, call VNHC at 805.965.5555, or click here to create your own advance directive online.

— Greg Rogers is the communications officer for Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care.