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A living will for your dying wish

by John Grimaldi

WASHINGTON, DC — “You don’t have to be old and sickly to start thinking about the benefits of making a living will, but it’s well worth giving it serious thought if you are a senior citizen,” says Rebecca Weber, CEO of the Association of Mature American Citizens [AMAC].

Weber explains that a “last will” is a document that lets you decide how your possessions, property and money will be distributed among family and friends when you die. A living will allows you to choose how you wish to be treated in the event that death is imminent and you are unable to communicate your wishes to your doctors and your family. “A living will does not go into effect if you are able to think and talk about the options you have, if you have been in an accident or are suffering from a dangerous illness. It only takes effect if you are incapacitated and cannot express your wishes.”

You can find “do-it-yourself” living will templates on the Internet and while they are relatively easy to complete, it’s important to bear in mind that different states have different rules about preparing living wills and so you may want to consult an attorney. You may also want to discuss your decision to execute a living will with your family and your primary care physician. After all, if you are incapacitated and can’t communicate your wishes to the attending medical team, you’ll need someone to inform them that you have a living will. And should you have religious doubts or concerns, talk it over with your minister, priest or rabbi, says AMAC’s Weber.

The American Bar Association [ABA] suggests you may also want to consider providing a close relative with your health care directive, specifically for medical decision making. The ABA also notes that: “The critical task in advance care planning is to clarify your values, goals, and wishes that you want others to follow if they must make decisions for you, rather than trying to address every possible medical treatment. Workbooks such as The Tool Kit for Health Care Advance Planning can help you: www.ambar.org/agingtoolkit.”

Attending doctors are required to adhere to your wishes when presented with a living will and/or a close relative or friend with your medical durable power of attorney. By following your instructions, they are providing immunity for themselves should an unexpected lawsuit arise.

Finally, you should be aware that preparing and presenting your living will/advance directive is only part of the process of ensuring that your wishes are followed in an end of life situation. The Bar Association puts it this way:

  • First, make sure your doctor understands and supports your wishes, and you understand your health state, likely futures, and options.
  • Second, there is no guarantee that your directive will follow you in your medical record, especially if you are transferred from one facility to another. You or your proxy should always double-check to be sure your providers are aware of your directive and have a copy.
  • Advance planning is an ongoing, evolving process. Review your wishes whenever any of the Five D’soccur: (1) you reach a new decade in age; (2) you experience the death of a loved one; (3) you divorce; (4) you are given a diagnosis of a significant medical condition; (5) you suffer a decline in your medical condition or functioning.