I have posted before about the importance of having your legal matters in order so that the burden on your kids will be minimized as you age. I want to take the time to look specifically at Living Wills and what they can mean for you and your family.
A Living Will, also known as an Advance Directive, Healthcare Directive or Physician Directive, is a legal document that is used to communicate a person’s wishes regarding treatments that prolong life. This important document is a way to clearly communicate to your family and healthcare providers what your desires for medical treatment are in the event that you are unable to speak for yourself.
This document lays out various life prolonging treatments (cardiac resuscitation, respiratory support/intubation, tube feedings, etc.) and allows you to indicate which of these treatments you do and do not want in the event of a terminal illness or at such a time that you are in a persistent vegetative state. The Advance Directive does not become effective unless you are no longer able to make and communicate decisions for yourself. Until that time, you continue to be in control of all healthcare and treatment decisions.
Having an Advance Directive does not mean that you won’t receive life prolonging treatments in the event of an acute illness or event (such as a heart attack or a stroke). It is only when the above criteria are met (terminal illness and/or persistent vegetative state) that the Advance Directive will be acted upon. This usually requires a certification by a physician and is only put into place when there is little chance for recovery.
In the event that you are incapacitated and unable to communicate your own wishes but your situation is not terminal, it is a good idea to have someone legally designated as your Healthcare Power of Attorney. This allows the person you name to make decisions on your behalf until you are able to do so for yourself again. Having this document does not allow your designee to make healthcare decisions if you are able to do so for yourself. Be sure to discuss with the person you designate what your wishes are so that they will be able to act on your behalf and according to your wishes if the need arises.
As the requirements for Living Wills vary from state to state, you may wish to have an attorney in your state that is familiar with those requirements assist you in creating this document. Attorneys that handle estate planning should be prepared to help you with your Advance Directive/Living Will.
When the document had been completed, make sure that those who may need to know your wishes have a copy of the document. It will do you no good if nobody knows that it exists or has access to it.
On a personal note, I cannot stress enough the importance of having these difficult discussions with your family and loved ones. As a nurse, I have witnessed the struggles that families have during already difficult times when they are unsure of the wishes of their loved one. Having to make a decision on someone’s behalf without fully knowing what that person might want can be a burden filled with guilt and anguish. Being clear in what you do or do not want in a given situation can be a gift of peace to a loved one at a difficult time. Please, leave them this legacy of love…..
On the journey with you…….Kathy