National Elder Law Month: Using A Living Will & Healthcare Proxy

May is National Elder Law Month and it is important to understand the importance of legal documents such as a living will and health care proxy as these can impact decisions around care for you or a loved one. We all value our freedom of choice when it comes to medical treatment.

It is important to ask yourself: what if you lose the capacity to make sound decisions or communicate your wishes? How will clinicians know what treatments you consent to? Who will communicate those wishes to them? One solution is to have advance directives in place to formalize your health care choices, should you be unable to later speak for yourself. Below is a breakdown of what each legal document means:

  • Living will (or Advance Directive)
    A living will is a written document that outlines your healthcare wishes, particularly concerning end-of-life care. This document can specify which medical treatments you would want (or not want) used to keep you alive, such as resuscitation, feeding tube, or heart-lung machines. These documents may direct medical providers on the types of treatments or specify how long you want your life prolonged. A living will may also indicate your religious or spiritual preferences.

Be aware that each state has different requirements or limitations for recognizing a living will. Consult with a legal professional to ensure your wishes are documented correctly.

  • Health care proxy (or durable power of attorney for health care) A health care proxy is a legal document specifically designed to cover medical treatment, specifically appointing a person you trust to express your wishes and make medical decisions for you when you are unable to do so. Your appointee may be a spouse, family member, friend, or any other trusted person.Since your proxy will be making determinations on your behalf, it is important to discuss your wishes with them in advance, including resuscitation, artificial nutrition, hydration, and personal goals for quality of life.

If you’re wondering what’s the best approach, here’s some general guidance:

  • Execute a health care proxy
    If you have a trusted family member or friend to serve you as your proxy, this is often the best course of action.
  • Discuss your wishes with the proxy
    Discuss whether you would want life-sustaining treatments to be withdrawn in the event of terminal illness or a persistent vegetative state. Even if you’re not sure, discussing your views and values will help your proxy make decisions down the road.
  • Don’t assume you need a living will
    If you’ve designated a trusted proxy who knows your wishes, you may not need a living will and you’ll avoid some of the pitfalls of living wills, like inadvertently limiting your proxy’s discretion or inviting misinterpretation.
  • Be careful when completing a living will
    If you’ve decided you want a living will, exercise care when completing it. When in doubt, obtain the guidance of a medical professional or attorney.

By planning, you can get the medical care you want, avoid unnecessary suffering, and relieve caregivers of decision-making burdens during moments of crisis or grief. You may also help reduce confusion or disagreement about the choices you would want people to make on your behalf.

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