Organ donation: You're never too old

The Savy Senior

Jim Miller - Savy SeniorFebruary 29, 2012 

Savvy Senior

Dear Savvy Senior

Is there an age limit on being an organ donor? At age 73, I'm interested in being a donor when I die, but am wondering if they would still want my organs. What can you tell me, and what do I need to do to sign up?

-- Willing But Old

Dear Willing,

There's no defined cutoff age for being an organ donor. In fact, there are many people well up into their 80's that donate. The decision to use your organs is based on health, not age, so don't disqualify yourself prematurely. Let the doctors decide at your time of death whether your organs and tissues are suitable for transplantation.

Donating Facts

In the United States alone, more than 112,000 people are on the waiting list for organ transplants. But because the demand is so much greater than the supply, those on the list routinely wait three to seven years for an organ, and more than 6,500 of them die each year.

Organs that can be donated include the kidneys (which are in the greatest demand with more than 90,000 on the waiting list), liver, lungs, heart, pancreas and intestines. Tissue is also needed to replace bone, tendons and ligaments. Corneas are needed to restore sight. Skin grafts help burn patients heal and often mean the difference between life and death. And heart valves repair cardiac defects and damage.

How to Donate

If you would like to become a donor, there are several steps you should take to ensure your wishes are carried out, including:

Registering: Add your name to your state or regional organ and tissue donor registry. You can do this online at either donatelife.net or organdonor.gov. Both sites provide links to all state registries. If you don't have Internet access, you can call your local organ procurement organization and ask them to mail you a donor card, which you can fill out and return. To get the phone number of your local organization, call Donate Life America at 800-355-7427.

Identify yourself: Designate your decision to become an organ donor on your driver's license, which you can do when you go in to renew it. If, however, you don't drive anymore or if your renewal isn't due for a while, consider getting a state ID card -- this also lets you indicate you want to be a donor. You can get an ID card for a few dollars at your nearby driver's license office.

Tell your family: Even if you are a registered donor, in many states family members have the ultimate say whether your organs may be donated after you die. So clarify your wishes to your family. It's also a good idea to tell your doctors and add it to your advance directives. These are legal documents that include a living will and medical power of attorney that spell out your wishes regarding your end-of-life medical treatment when you can no longer make decisions for yourself. If you don't have an advance directive, go to caringinfo.org or call 800-658-8898 where you can get free state-specific forms with instructions to help you make one.

For more information on organ and tissue donation and transplantation, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Donate the Gift of Life website at organdonor.gov. Also see the United Network for Organ Sharing at unos.org, and transplantliving.org which offers information on being a living donor.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.

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