Living Will and Health Care Proxy 101

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It’s not exactly fun to think about, but it’s important for every woman to consider what would happen if she was unable to direct her medical care.

If (heaven forbid) you had an accident that prevented you from voicing your decisions, it would fall to your loved ones to decide on your medical treatment. As the legal and emotional battle within Terry Schiavo’s family demonstrated, the process could carry a high emotional and financial toll if family members are unable to agree.

In a 2010 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than half of the subjects did not have living wills, and it was difficult for their family members and doctors to determine their preferences for medical treatment. While it’s not super pleasant, it’s important to take the time to think about your preferences now, to ensure that your decisions will be carried out later.

Living Wills in a Nutshell

A living will is a document describing the medical treatment you want to receive if you are unable to communicate your wishes.

Although it sounds like a last will, the living will doesn’t have anything to do with naming heirs or distributing your property—it just describes your own personal preferences for medical treatment.

The living will is often paired with a health care proxy (a.k.a. a health care power of attorney), a document that names who you want to make medical care decisions on your behalf if you are unable to make them yourself.

Why Living Wills Are Important

 A living will spares your family the stress of making tough medical choices. If you don’t have a living will and it is unclear who should make decisions on your behalf, it is up to the state to call a costly court hearing and appoint a health care agent for you.

Term Sheet

Living Will
n. A document that outlines your choices for medical treatment in case you are unable to communicate them yourself. Also known as an advance medical directive.

Health Care Proxy
n. A document that names the person who will make health care decisions for you if you become incapacitated. Also known as a health care power of attorney, appointment of a health care agent or durable power of attorney for health care.

Notary
n. A witness licensed by the state to perform legal acts, particularly witnessing signatures. Notarizing your documents means the notary will identify you, acknowledge that she saw your living will signed and make a note of it in her records.

In the NEJM study, researchers examined the medical records of more than 4,000 people over the age of 60 and found that people with living wills were more likely than those without a living will to receive the type of care they requested. For instance, people with living wills requesting, say, aggressive care were more likely to receive that than someone without a living will.

Bottom line: A living will isn’t a document to put off until you’re older; it’s important for women of all ages to have one.

What a Living Will Covers

When drawing up your living will, decide what type of medical care you want in different situations, and where you would draw the line. Would you want any treatment possible to prolong life, or would you only want care in certain circumstances? These are the things you will need to determine whether you want:

  • Resuscitation: The process of restarting your heart after it stops beating by CPR and a defibrillator, which sends electrical energy to the heart. Some living wills include a “Do not resuscitate” order (often referred to as a DNR), which states that you do not wish to have CPR or defibrillation if your heart or breathing stops.
  • Mechanical ventilation: Entails sing a machine that enables you to breathe.
  • Feeding tubes: They supply your body with nutrition and fluids if you are unable to eat or drink.
  • Dialysis: Removes waste from your blood and manages fluid levels.
  • Organ donation: Allows the doctor to donate your organs and tissues for transplantation or scientific study.

Who You Designate As Your Health Care Proxy

Accompanying your living will is your health care proxy, a document that names who should carry out your health care wishes if you are unable to communicate them yourself. In some states, it’s also known as a durable power of attorney for health care, and it may either be part of the living will form, or a separate document. “Health care proxy,” or a health care agent, is also the term used for the person that you designate.

Who should you choose as your proxy? You definitely want to choose someone honest and mature. It could be your mother, a sibling or a close friend. Whoever you choose, pick her because you trust her to carry out your wishes—not because you feel guilty or obligated. You can even hire an adviser, if you want your proxy to be totally impartial and free from family drama.

What You Should Do Now

Start your living will today. You can create one on your own, and, even if you hire someone to do it for you, it doesn’t take a lot of time. Read more about how to write a living will here.

Remember

It’s not exactly fun, but writing your living will now could save your loved ones a lot of financial and emotional trauma down the line. It’ll also give you peace of mind. Every woman should have one, because having a living will means you can concentrate on living well.