Book shows people how to leave behind values for heirs
Dr. Barry Baines, an East Isles resident, asked his father to write down his values when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1990. A month before his father died, Baines received a letter from his father that shared intimate details of the man's life.
“A few words to express my feelings and thoughts while time is running out on me. Some standard values I have lived by throughout my life are that I have always believed in honesty and advocated truthfulness,” his father wrote in a handwritten message - now a keepsake for Baines.
Even though Baines didn't know it at the time, his father's correspondence was an ethical will. Unlike a living will, an ethical will imparts specific details of a person's life. “It's a way to pass on faith, hope and life lessons,” he said.
Baines, chief medical officer of UCare Minnesota, a local health insurer, and assistant medical director of Hospice of the Twin Cities, has become a national expert on the wills. His father's letter is printed in his book, “Ethical Wills; Putting Your Values on Paper,” which was first published in 2002 and is scheduled to be re-released in May with revisions and an additional chapter on living wills.
Baines' book is one of the few resources available on the subject. Although ethical wills have been around for thousands of years - they've been referenced in the Bible and other literature through time - a Google search for “ethical wills” yields mainly links to Baines' Web site, www.ethicalwills.com.
Until recently, “Ethical Wills” first version was still in print. It's sold nearly 12,000 copies. Popular among those wishing to supplement their living wills or inheritance wills, lately, ethical wills have gotten attention from entrepreneurs, real estate planners and attorneys.
Furthermore, he attributed the resurging interest in ethical wills to demographic changes. “As baby boomers' parents are aging and dying, they want to leave a legacy. All of us have a transcendent dimension. We achieve meaning by being remembered. People need to have stakes in the future.”
A stake in the future
A dying patient named Dennis, who endured a high level of pain while in hospice care in 1998, furthered Baines' interest in ethical wills. Dennis, who had cancer, suffered severely in the final stages. But much of his pain seemed to be linked to the idea that after he died, “there'd be no trace of him on Earth,” Baines said.
Recalling his father's memento, Baines suggested that Dennis record some last thoughts for his family. When Baines brought him a paper with a list of questions that encouraged reflection, Dennis grasped it “like a drowning man would grab a life preserver,” he said.
The physical change it inspired in the man was remarkable. Immediately following the exercise, Dennis' suffering was abated. That's when Baines became attuned to the power of writing an ethical will, he said. Afterwards, he began to incorporate ethical wills into his philosophy of hospice care. He hosted workshops and put together a kind of curriculum about how to go about writing an ethical will.
Writing an ethical will
In his book, “Ethical Wills,” Baines instructs readers how to get started on an ethical will by recounting old family stories, among other exercises.
Hella Buchheim, a personal historian who assists those wanting to jot down their stories, completed an ethical will after she read Baines' book.
She said she'll probably rewrite it in 10 years. “Because I have a living will, my property and health is taken care of. I'm only midlife and I don't have any children, so I'm not leaving something for them. I wrote this as my celebration of life,” she said.
Currently, she's teaching family members about how to do their own ethical wills. She took Baines' class on facilitating the process last month. Since she sees ethical wills as a trigger for further storytelling, she's now including them as part of her business.
“It's a great outline to accomplish your values in a short time. There are lots of good outlets and guidelines,” she said. “There are a lot of times when people should be writing and sharing ethical wills. It doesn't have to be a death thing.”
Wherever Baines presents the idea of ethical wills, “Everybody gets it. There's no hostile audience,” he said. “It opens up the lines of communication. It's a way to honor the past and capture the present and future.”