What Is a Living Will?

courtesy of DailyCaring.com

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What is a living will?

A living will is a legal document that lets someone state their wishes for end-of-life medical care. Family or doctors use it to make decisions about medical treatments when that person isn't able to communicate or make decisions on his/her behalf.

A living will is also called an advance directive or a healthcare directive.

How does a living will work with a Power of Attorney?

A living will expresses end-of-life wishes and typically works together with a medical Power of Attorney (POA). In some states, they're combined into one document.

The medical POA allows your older adult to choose someone who will be able to legally make medical decisions on their behalf. That person is called the healthcare agent or proxy for healthcare decisions.

Together, these two documents let your senior control what types of treatment they'll receive at the end of their life and who will make sure their wishes are carried out.

What's included in a living will?

A living will spells out the medical treatments your older adult would and would not want to have.

The types of decisions people make in a living will usually include their wishes for:

  • CPR/resuscitation to restart the heart if it stops beating
  • Mechanical ventilation to take over breathing if they're unable
  • Tube feeding if they can't eat or drink, either by IV or tube in stomach
  • Dialysis if their kidneys no longer work
  • Antibiotics or antiviral medications to treat infections
  • Comfort care (also called palliative care), which basically means keeping them comfortable and as pain-free as possible (It could mean dying at home, getting pain medications, being fed ice chips for a dry throat, or avoiding invasive tests or treatments.)
  • Organ and tissue donations for transplantation
  • Donating their body for scientific study

How does a living will help seniors and caregivers?

A living will helps you and your family make decisions about your senior's care. If you don't know their specific end-of-life wishes, you'll have to make a best guess, which can be a very stressful situation! Even worse, family members might end up arguing over treatments.

Also, if an older adult wants their unmarried partner or trusted friend to be in charge of their medical decisions, they must have a living will and medical POA in place. Otherwise, doctors won't be able to talk with them about medical decisions.

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Different states have different laws for living wills

Living wills aren't the same in all states. For example, in California, it's called an advance directive and includes both a living will and a medical POA.

Your senior needs to use the living will for their state. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization provides links to each state's living will form and instructions.

Bottom line

A living will makes sure that your older adult's wishes will be honored and often puts their minds at ease. If your senior is already incapacitated, talk with siblings or family to make decisions on their behalf.

Having these conversations and thinking through important decisions before a crisis will reduce stress, guilt, and difficult conflicts in the future.

Reviewed May 2017

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