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End of Life Decisions and Advance Directives

Posted Sep 23rd, 2009 by Trisha Torrey

You’ve probably heard the term "advance directives."  Advance directives are legal documents which spell out your wishes for your end of life care.

Most of us don’t want to think about these kinds of decisions!  But they are important to make at any stage of life because we never know when the end of life will be near, whether through terminal illness, a sudden heart attack or stroke, or even an accident.

The idea is to write down your beliefs about how you want to be treated when the end is near.  Your beliefs might be similar to mine, or may even be somewhat different.  For example, when the end of my life is near, I know I don’t want to be in pain, suffer through death, or be a burden to my loved ones. I have put  together advance directives to prevent those things from happening as much as possible.

Here are some of the documents you’ll want to consider developing:

A health care proxy is a directive which designates who can make treatment decisions on your behalf should you be unconscious or otherwise be unable to speak for yourself. You choose your decision-maker – a spouse, child or another person you know will act according to your wishes.

A DNR is a do-not-resuscitate order. It is an optional component of a living will.

A living will is a document which tells your decision-maker and healthcare providers what your end of life choices are. Do you want to be kept alive on a breathing machine or revived if your heart stops? These are momentous decisions that weigh heavily on those who may be forced to make them on your behalf. A legal document which spells out your choices makes those decisions less onerous.

Just as important as preparing legally recognized documents, is having a discussion with your loved ones, especially the decision-maker you designate in your proxy. Help them understand what choices are important to you and why, so there will be no question of what you would wish if the time ever comes when it is necessary.

Every state in the United States recognizes different forms of advance directives. If you spend time in more than one state for any length of time (maybe you have a vacation home in another place, or maybe you spend your winters in a warmer climate), you will need different legal documents for each. In some cases, a lawyer is required. In others, the signatures of two witnesses are the only requirement. For a state-by-state list of requirements with links to the right forms, link here.

Spending some time making these decisions, putting them on paper, and talking to your loved ones will reap benefits later, when they are needed.  You’ll do yourself and your loved ones a huge favor by providing this kind of peace of mind.

 

About the author

Trisha Torrey is Every Patient's Advocate. She is a newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, national speaker, and the guide to patient empowerment at About.com.

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