Living Wills Offer Peace of Mind

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, says the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). 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, who you want to make decisions for you if you can't make them for yourself.

Issues to consider

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

The NAELA also suggests addressing these questions:

  • If you can no longer eat, drink or breathe on your own?

  • If you can't function without machines?

  • If you are confined to bed?

  • If you can't think, reason and remember?

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.

Make it legal

A Florida nonprofit group, Aging With Dignity, has distributed more than 6 million copies of a low-cost "5 Wishes" living will. Paul Malley, a spokesperson for the group, says you should keep three main things in mind when you draft a living will:

  • Put your wishes in writing in a way that meets your state's legal requirements.

  • Make your wishes known to your family and your doctor.

  • Make sure those people have copies of your living will.

Check the Web to find out what your state accepts. If you spend time in more than one state, it's crucial to know each state's rules. Doctors, hospitals, and state medical associations will often have the forms you need.

When you name someone to make health care decisions for you, make sure that person is able and willing to carry out your wishes and knows your wishes, the NAELA says.

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