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Advance Directives

What you should know about preparing for your end-of-life care

En español | No one wants to think about what will happen if they have a serious illness or injury and can’t make their own health care decisions. But advance directives are as much for the living as they are for the dying — and the best time to have a conversation about these issues is when you’re not racing against time in a crisis.  Still, 70 percent of Americans never do.

We’ve made it easier. Here are questions and answers that will help you make sure your wishes about end-of-life care are granted.

Q: What is an advance directive?

A: The term refers to two documents: A living will and a health care proxy (also called a medical power of attorney.)

  • A living will outlines which medical procedures you want or don’t want if you’re unable to make medical decisions and end of life is near. For instance:  Do you want to be kept alive on a ventilator or feeding tube? Do you prefer to spend your last days in a hospice or at home? How do you feel about organ donation? If you’re confused or not sure, make an appointment with your physician, spiritual adviser or another health care professional to discuss various end-of-life situations. States have different rules governing when a living will can take effect.
  • A health care proxy allows you to appoint someone to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make those decisions yourself.

Specifics about advance directives vary from state to state. You can print a free copy of your state’s advance directive forms.

Q: What qualities should I look for in a health care proxy?    

A: A health care proxy must be 18 or older, but the proxy doesn’t need to be a relative or someone with medical knowledge.

Look for someone you can trust and who can be there for you over any length of time. The person should be unwavering in his or her commitment to carry out your wishes — even if they are different from his or her own beliefs. A proxy should be mature and clearheaded during times of great stress; comfortable talking to doctors; and assertive enough to ask the right questions about treatments and prognosis.

States can have certain stipulations on who can’t be your health care proxy, such as an employee of a nursing home where you’re receiving treatment.

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