'A bit more urgency': Calgarians inquire about legal preparations for end of life, illness
COVID-19 has prompted people to ask about so-called living wills, other documents
Like most of us, Alyssa Denis had been putting off plans to prepare for her death, but because of COVID-19 she's had to abruptly reshuffle her priorities.
Denis, who just recently turned 38, has been dealing with myriad health problems for years. She was diagnosed with lupus when she was 21. The disease has led to a range of complications affecting her lungs, kidneys, heart and brain. Last year, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
She says the health-care crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has endangered her life even further.
Home care visits have been cancelled and her cancer surgery, already postponed twice, has been rescheduled for May 1. However, she's been warned that it may not go ahead because of the risk she could face if she's exposed to COVID-19 and the priority the health-care system is putting on treating patients with the coronavirus.
Equally concerning is that her lupus is flaring up again.
She's been told certain treatments that have worked in the past may not be available because of cancelled home visits and the inability to collect and test her blood.
"There's a very real chance that I might not make it through this pandemic," said Denis.
She recently reached out on social media asking for advice about putting together a personal directive, often called a living will.
It will allow someone she appoints to make medical and health-care decisions on her behalf should be become incapacitated.
"I feel like it's so important that I get this stuff in order now, while I can," she said.
It's forced her to confront a range of tough choices about different medical interventions that may be required, including when and how to resuscitate.
Denis says she doesn't have a lot of assets, outside of a vehicle, her personal belongings and a registered savings account.
"I kind of didn't want to think about my own mortality for the longest time. And so I kind of avoided the whole topic of it," she said.
Calgary lawyers are taking calls from people who are eager to get a personal directive done, along with other documents such as an enduring power of attorney and a will.
"I've seen, if not an uptick, at least maybe a little bit more urgency," said Danica Doucette-Preville, an associate at the firm Gowling WLG, who specializes in wills, estates and trusts. She's also an instructor in the faculty of law at the University of Calgary.
She says clients usually want to meet in person and take the time to understand the process of completing a personal directive, but COVID-19 has altered the process.
"Now what I'm seeing is a lot of people saying: 'I will do whatever you need as fast as you need for you to be able to draft the documents that I want to make sure that I'm OK. My family's OK," said Doucette-Preville.
A personal directive usually involves a questionnaire for people to fill out. It includes the name or names of the person, referred to as your agent, whom you've appointed to make medical and health-care decisions on your behalf in the event of illness or injury.
You can do this on your own or hire a lawyer to help with the process. Doucette-Preville says she guides her clients through what she calls value statements.
"So we asked them things like, do you want to be on a ventilator? What does a long-term quality of life look like for you?"
"The person you appoint could also decide where you live, whom you associate with, what type of visitors you get, what type of occupational therapy you're subject to. And so it can really encompass all of your personal decisions going forward."
She says they try to put as much down in writing as possible.
The information can then be registered with the Personal Directive Registry, a free service administered by the province's Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee.
Doucette-Preville urges everyone, no matter what stage they're at in life, to appoint an enduring power of attorney, someone who would make financial decisions on your behalf in the event of an illness or serious injury.
"It deals with all financial assets while you're still alive," she said.
Lawyers offer information
Cyndy Morin, a family lawyer in Calgary, says her firm has put together a hotline to help people with legal questions around COVID-19, including what needs to be done to complete a personal directive, an enduring power of attorney and a will.
She says Resolve Legal Group wants to provide information to people who need it, and it's not being used to bring in new clients.
"This is not an effective way to get clients but it is an effective way to get information to the public," said Morin.
Morin says she wants people to avoid the nightmare that she went through when her husband died without a will when she was 27 and pregnant with their third child.
She says her message has always been "get your will done, get your will done, get your will done," but since the emergence of the coronavirus global pandemic, her message has changed.
"I never thought there would be a day where I'd say wills aren't that important right now. That just sounds very unusual for me to say that. But right now, if you can only afford to get anything done, get a personal directive," she said.
According to the province's website, a lawyer isn't required to complete a personal directive and it can be done for free, but it suggests a lawyer should be involved when you put together an enduring power of attorney, an agreement between you and someone you trust to make financial decisions on your behalf.
Morin says provisions are being made to accommodate document signings that follow physical distancing guidelines.
It's something that Alyssa Denis is also looking into, but the personal directive is her top priority right now.
She says she wants to ease the burden on her parents by them not having to make any decisions related to her medical care.
"They've already helped me so much, I don't want to add to their burdens."
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.