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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's used when a person becomes terminally ill or can't communicate or make decisions, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) says.

A living will doesn't always tell healthcare providers 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 it means that your family or friends aren't left with the burden of making tough decisions about your care.

Many people avoid thinking about or getting a living will. People tend to think that serious illness or death is not going to happen to them and that they will live forever.

But it is important to have plans in place. Starting at age 18, you should put into writing:

  • How you feel about life-support systems

  • What your desires are

  • The person you want to make decisions for you if you can't make them for yourself (your healthcare proxy)

Issues to consider

When putting together a living will, you should think about the types of life-sustaining care you would want. These include:

  • Life-sustaining equipment like dialysis machines, ventilators, and respirators

  • Do not resuscitate (DNR) orders. A DNR order tells medical staff not to do potentially life-restoring measures, such as CPR if your breathing or heart stops.

  • Tube feeding or giving fluids by tube

  • Withholding food or fluids

  • Care that provides comfort (called palliative care)

  • Organ and tissue donation

You can refuse aggressive medical treatment but still allow treatment that focuses on comfort. Such treatment could include antibiotics, nutrition, pain medicine, and radiation therapy.

Make it legal

Write down your wishes

Once you sort through your feelings, you must write down what you want so that your caregivers and healthcare providers know how to care for you. Your message to your providers is known as a living will. Legal forms vary from state to state. If you spend time in more than one state, it's important to know each state's rules. You can check with a lawyer about what you will need. Or you can find free forms and help by visiting the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization website. Any forms you use must be signed, dated, and witnessed.

It's best to be as exact as possible. Don't use unclear statements like, "Just let me go peacefully." In a crisis situation, caregivers need clear directions. This also helps prevent conflicts. Make sure that your family, friends, healthcare team, and hospital or other providers all have a copy of your living will. This way, it can be easily accessed and followed. 

Your personal support person

You will need someone to make decisions for you if you aren't able to do so. The person you choose should be named in a legal document that is called a durable power of attorney. For health decisions, this person is often called your healthcare proxy. Pick someone who understands you, respects you and your wishes, and can make hard decisions in times of stress. Explain your end-of-life choices and ask if they will honor your wishes. If the answer is yes, you've found your support person. You can choose your durable power of attorney to make financial and other decisions for you as well, should you become unable to act or respond.

Your living will and durable power of attorney are legal documents known as advance directives. They will help make sure your wishes are followed.