An advance directive or living will is a document specifying one’s wishes for health care in the event of a medical emergency or critical illness. People are often unable to speak for themselves about the medical care they wish to receive in the event of a serious medical situation. This may be due to loss of consciousness, delirium, medications used to control pain or other factors. By creating an advance directive, a person can specify the level of medical care they consider appropriate in this type of situation, especially whether they would agree to emergency resuscitation measures such as a breathing tube or CPR, or to receive nutrition through a feeding tube.
A health care proxy or durable power of attorney (DPOA) is a person who has been designated to make health care decisions in the event of a medical emergency or critical illness. Many people will designate their spouse or a close family member to serve as their DPOA. However, someone outside the family can also be designated. For legal reasons, it is important to make this designation in writing, and it is also important to have a detailed discussion with one’s DPOA about preferences for emergency resuscitation and other health care issues so that the DPOA may fulfill their role properly.
Most state health departments provide a template for an advance directive or living will on their websites. Caring Connections (www.caringinfo.org) has links to every state’s advance directive through its website. Information or forms for creating an advance directive or designating a DPOA are also available from many other organizations and websites, including the AARP (www.AARP.org), the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org), and Aging with Dignity (www.agingwithdignity.org).