Helping Hispanic Families Learn About End-of-Life Options

An advance directive informs hospitals about a patient’s choices for medical interventions and end-of-life care. Photo credit Shutterstock licensed.

NEW YORK – As the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rise, a new initiative is helping Mexican immigrants living in the United States deal with issues of end-of-life planning. Hispanic Americans are 18% of the U.S. population, but account for 25% of COVID deaths, adding extra urgency to things like advance directives for end-of-life care.

Patricia Gonzales-Portillo is National Latino Communications and Constituency Director with the organization Compassion and Choices. She says the collaboration with a national health outreach program from the Mexican Consulate should help reduce disparities in end-of-life planning and health care that negatively impact the immigrant community.

“We can catch this horrible virus that can kill us,” says Gonzales-Portillo. “Are we going to wait ’til that happens before we have the conversation with our family about what I want in case I die from this illness?”

Compassion and Choices has assembled a free, bilingual COVID-19 toolkit, which is available online at ‘CompassionandChoices.org.’


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Maria Otero, Compassion and Choice’s national constituency manager, points out there are Hispanic cultural values – such as the importance of family involvement and the influence of religion – that affect behavior at the end of life. And there are cultural barriers, too.

“There’s not a word in Spanish about advance directives. We don’t have a word for ‘hospice,'” says Otero. “So, often we are perceived like we are not very assertive to what we want at the end of life.”

She adds that the pandemic represents an opportunity to start important conversations among families about a topic that most people prefer to avoid.

Because COVID-19 is so contagious, currently incurable and the symptoms can advance quickly, Gonzales-Portillo stresses that everyone should complete an advance directive.

“That clearly details what the person wishes for at the end of life,,” says Gonzales-Portillo. “So that family members are not left with this task of guessing, ‘What would my brother want?'”

She says without an advance directive, hospitals often are forced to make decisions about medical interventions and treatment that may not be what the patient would want.

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