A living will tells others how you want to be treated when it comes to life-sustaining measures. It is used when a person becomes terminally ill or unable to communicate or make decisions, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) says. Such a will doesn't always tell doctors to withhold or end treatment. In fact, it can call for treatment to go on regardless of your medical condition. Having a living will protects your rights as a patient and means that your family or friends aren't left with the burden of making difficult decisions about your care.
Many people avoid getting an advance directive for the same reason they often don't want to think about a will. People tend to think that serious illness or death is not going to happen to them, that they are immortal.
Beginning at age 18, you should put into writing how you feel about life-support systems, what your desires are, and who you want to make decisions for you if you can't make them for yourself.
When putting together a living will, you should think about the issues or types of life-sustaining care, the NCI says. These include:
Life-sustaining equipment, such as dialysis machines, ventilators, and respirators
Do not resuscitate orders, which mean medical staff are not to use CPR if your breathing or heart stops
Tube feeding or supplying fluids by tube
Withholding food or fluids
Palliative care, or care that provides comfort
Organ and tissue donation
You can refuse aggressive medical treatment, but still allow treatment that focuses on comfort. Such treatment could include antibiotics, nutrition, pain medication, and radiation therapy, the NCI says.
Once you sort through your feelings, you must write down your preferences so that your caregivers and health care providers know how to care for you. Your message to your health care providers is known as a living will. Legal forms vary from state to state. If you spend time in more than one state, it's crucial to know each state's rules. You can check with a lawyer about what you will need, or you may find free forms and help by visiting the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization website. Any forms you use must be signed, dated, and witnessed.
It's best to be as specific as possible. Avoid vague statements such as, "Just let me go peacefully." In a crisis situation, caregivers need clear direction, which also helps avoid conflicts. Make sure that your family, friends, health care team, and hospital or other health care providers all have a copy of your advance directive so that it can be easily accessed and followed.
You will need someone to make decisions for you if you aren't able to do so. The person you choose should be named in a legal document known as a durable power of attorney. For health decisions, this person is often called your health care proxy. Pick someone who understands you, respects you and your wishes, and can make difficult decisions in times of stress. Explain your end-of-life preferences and ask if he or she will honor your wishes. If the answer is "yes," you've found your advocate. You can designate your durable power of attorney to make financial and other decisions for you as well, should you become incapacitated.
An advance directive will contain the two legal documents you need: your living will and your durable power of attorney.