What is a Living Will?
If you have strong ideas about what you would like to happen if you become incapacitated – or if you’d simply like to relieve some of the decision-making stress on your loved ones in case you become incapacitated – it’s important to consider creating a living will.
Different from a last will and testament that outlines an executor or leaves your belongings to your loved ones, a living will describes the type of medical care you would (or would not) like to receive in case you cannot speak for yourself. This document is also often combined with a power of attorney document that names a person you wish to make health care decisions on your behalf if you cannot do so, and helps ensure that your wishes are carried out in emergencies (Note: some states combine both documents into an Advanced Health Care Directive that contains both health care declaration and durable power of attorney).
You may feel uncomfortable discussing these topics with your loved ones, especially if you are currently in good health, but this document is important in case the unforeseen happens. In many cases, there are not easy and obvious choices to be made; outlining your wishes ahead of time can make difficult situations more bearable, especially for your loved ones being faced with hard decisions.
For example, you should consider including what your answers would be to the following questions:
- If you experience prolonged unconsciousness, do you wish to be given food and water intravenously? Any stipulations?
- Do you wish to be given palliative care for pain relief, if you are not to be given food and water?
- What types of medical care do you give permission to receive, and which do you not? For example: blood transfusions, CPR, diagnostic tests, dialyses, use of ventilator, surgery, etc.
- If you are nearing the end of your life, do you prefer to be sent home, or to go into Hospice with palliative care?
- Are you willing to donate your organs after death? Are you willing to let your body be studied for medical purposes?
These are just a few of the complex questions that you should consider and document while you are in good health, while can truly decide what is best for yourself. Sometimes it is difficult to express your thoughts in a written form, so it can be helpful to sit down with family members, health caregivers, or a clergy member to help you sort out and document your wishes.
Often, you may feel like your answers to these questions might be conditional; the American Bar Association created a helpful document that lets you rate on a sliding scale your thoughts regarding difficult situations, with an area for comments.
You can often get a free living will form at local senior centers, hospitals, your physician’s office, your state’s medical association, or The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. After you’ve collected your thoughts, it’s important to ensure that your document is legal and binding. This typically means getting the final document notarized and possibly witnessed, but every state is slightly different in requirements so you should check with your state’s requirements.
Finally, because this document is only useful if others know about it, you should give a copy to your family members, your doctor(s), your care facility, and others who might be involved in your future health care. By taking the time to thoughtfully plan for your worst-case scenario now, you will be saving your loved ones additional heartache and stress, while also ensuring that your own wishes will be honored, regardless of your condition.