Advance directives describe your preferences regarding end-of-life care. Unexpected situations can happen at any age, all adults should complete an advance directive.
Advance directives (sometimes called Living Wills) describe your preferences regarding treatment if you’re faced with a serious accident or illness. These legal documents speak for you when you’re not able to speak for yourself — for instance, if you’re in a coma.
Advance directives include:
- Living will. This written, legal document spells out the types of medical treatments and life-sustaining measures you want and don’t want, such as mechanical breathing (respiration and ventilation), tube feeding or resuscitation. In some states, living wills may be called health care declarations or health care directives.
- Medical or health care power of attorney (POA). The medical POA is a legal document that designates an individual — referred to as your health care agent or proxy — to make medical decisions for you in the event that you’re unable to do so. However, it is different from a power of attorney authorizing someone to make financial transactions for you.
- Do not resuscitate (DNR) order. This is a request to not have cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if your heart stops or if you stop breathing. Advance directives do not have to include a DNR order, and you don’t have to have an advance directive to have a DNR order. Your doctor can put a DNR order in your medical chart.
Your health care agent doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member. You may want your health care decision maker to be different from the person you choose to handle your financial matters. It may be helpful, but it’s not necessary, if the person lives in the same city or state as you do.
In determining your wishes, think about your values, such as the importance to you of being independent and self-sufficient, and what you feel would make your life not worth living. Would you want treatment to extend life in any situation? Would you want treatment only if a cure is possible? Would you want palliative care to ease pain and discomfort if you were terminally ill?
Although you can’t predict what medical situations will arise, be sure to discuss the following treatments. It may help to talk with your doctor about these, especially if you have questions.
- Resuscitation. Restarts the heart when it has stopped beating (cardiac death). Determine if and when you would want to be resuscitated by cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or by a device that delivers an electric shock to stimulate the heart.
- Mechanical ventilation. Takes over your breathing if you’re unable to do so. Consider if, when and for how long you would want to be placed on a mechanical ventilator.
- Nutritional and hydration assistance. Supplies the body with nutrients and fluids intravenously or via a tube in the stomach. Decide if, when and for how long you would want to be fed in this manner.
To revise your advance directives, you follow the same steps you used to create them. Get new advance directive forms to fill out. Discuss your changes with your friends, family and doctor. Then distribute copies of the new advance directives and ask everyone to destroy the earlier version.
If there isn’t time to redo the paperwork, you can always cancel your advance directive by telling your doctor and your family. Remember, a living will or medical POA goes into effect only if you are unable to make medical decisions for yourself, as determined by your doctors.