Advance directives are simply put, future healthcare decisions you make today regarding your end-of-life care. They include healthcare documents like a living will, appointing a healthcare agent and writing down other wishes you might have for medical care in case you are unable to communicate.
Because life changing situations can happen at any age, all adults ages 18 and older should have advance directives completed in writing and copies distributed to the appropriate people. Many are familiar with the Karen Ann Quinlan story of a 30 year women who slipped into coma, was put on life support for a year, taken off, but continued living in a unresponsive state for nine years. This is just one example of a situation where advance directives would have been helpful.
According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, a living will allows you to document your wishes concerning medical treatments at the end of life.
Before your living will can guide medical decision-making, two physicians must certify:
- You are unable to make medical decisions,
- You are in the medical condition specified in the state's living will law (such as "terminal illness" or "permanent unconsciousness"),
- Other requirements also may apply, depending upon the state.
A medical power of attorney (or healthcare proxy) allows you to appoint a person you trust as your healthcare agent (or surrogate decision maker), who is authorized to make medical decisions on your behalf.
Before a medical power of attorney goes into effect a person’s physician must conclude that they are unable to make their own medical decisions. In addition:
- If a person regains the ability to make decisions, the agent cannot continue to act on the person's behalf.
- Many states have additional requirements that apply only to decisions about life-sustaining medical treatments.
- For example, before your agent can refuse a life-sustaining treatment on your behalf, a second physician may have to confirm your doctor's assessment that you are incapable of making treatment decisions.
Not unlike getting your wisdom teeth pulled or making an appointment for a colonoscopy, Advance Directives are important healthcare decisions we tend to put off! What's important to realize is by documenting your future healthcare decisions you're actually helping yourself and giving a gift to your family by not putting them in a position to make these difficult decisions during an already emotional time.
How do I complete my Advance Directives?
The process of completing your Advance Directives is not difficult, but does require some thought and some conversation with your family. There are many resources available online including: