Mary was devastated. Her mother-in-law Sara had been in a serious car accident and had barely survived the crash. Sara hadn’t regained consciousness after the crash, and because she didn’t have an advance directive or living will, she was kept alive on a ventilator for months. Each day when she went to the hospital to see Sara, Mary wondered if this kind of care is what Sara would have wanted.
While there wasn’t anything she could do to change Sara’s situation, Mary wanted to make sure that her own parents prepared legal documents outlining what kind of medical care they wanted to receive should they ever be in a situation where they were unable to communicate their wishes. Her mother had mentioned in passing that she didn’t want to be kept alive artificially, but Mary knew that her word wouldn’t be enough. She needed it in writing.
Imagining a life-threatening medical situation or the end of one’s life is not an easy thing to do. It is, however, very important, as it allows us to clarify our values and our wishes for how we want to live and how we want to die. Part of that is about making decisions regarding what type of care we would like to receive should we ever be in a situation that renders us unable to communicate our wishes.
In order to help your aging loved one to be as prepared as possible should they find themselves in this type of situation, let’s talk about two very important documents—the living will and the healthcare power of attorney—and the important steps to follow when creating them.
Living Wills and Advance Directives Explained
Advance directives are the documents that detail a person’s healthcare preferences in the case that they are unable to communicate them at the time when care is needed. Two distinct documents comprise the advance directive: the living will and the healthcare power of attorney.
The living will is a written document that outlines the specific treatment measures that your loved one wishes to have or not to have in various situations. In other words, it is an end of life care plan detailing how they want to live in their final days. For example, your loved one may state that they do not wish to be put on a ventilator or feeding tube should they be unable to breathe or eat by themselves. They should also state what kind of treatment they would like to receive. Your loved one may, for instance, state that they desire hospice care at the end of their life.
The healthcare power of attorney, sometimes called the healthcare proxy, designates someone to make medical decisions for your loved one if they are unable to. This may mean making decisions about what treatments or pain management medications they receive or deciding when to admit them to a hospice or care home. The designated person is also responsible for carrying out the wishes in the living will.
It’s important that your loved one chooses their healthcare proxy very carefully and makes sure that the person they chose is willing and able to carry out their requests without inserting their own personal wishes and desires. It’s also a good idea for your loved one to appoint a secondary healthcare proxy should the first one be unable to do so.
Taking the time to help your loved one fill out these forms will not only ensure that they live out their life in a way that is meaningful to them, but it will also prevent families from disagreeing about the ways in which their loved one should receive care.
How to Make a Living Will and Advance Directive: Simple Steps for Success
Once you and your loved one have completed the advance directive forms, which you can easily find online, there are still a few important things you need to do. Here is a breakdown of the steps you and your loved one need to take in order to finish the process of making an advance directive:
- Have your loved one reread and sign the documents in front of a designated witness.
- Assist your loved one in making hard copies of their advance directive documents and give them to their designated healthcare proxy. Having a meeting with their healthcare proxy to go through the forms is also a good idea, as it will help clarify exactly what is desired.
- Arrange an appointment with your loved one’s doctor to review the forms with them. It’s important that you make sure they are comfortable carrying out the specific wishes your loved one has outlined.
- Help your aging loved one find a safe place in their home to keep their advance directive and make sure that family members know where it is so it can be accessed easily in case of emergency. In fact, it is a good idea to include its location in the letter of direction alongside their will.
Since the process of making an advance directive may be an emotionally difficult thing for your aging loved one, it’s important that you do your best to help them feel more comfortable with the idea. Filling out your own advance directive forms along with them is one way to make them feel less singled out. It is, after all, important for every adult to have an advance directive, no matter one’s age.
Another way to help them feel more comfortable with the process is to stress that advance directives are not necessarily used in end of life situations. Your loved one may be temporarily unable to make their own decisions for a variety of reasons, such as injuries or treatable illnesses, and the advance directive will ensure they get the kind of care they want. It’s also worth stressing that advance directives are less about death than they are about life—the quality of life that is important to them.
If your aging loved one is still resistant to the idea of filling out an advance directive, give them some space. These things often take time and are typically not completed in one sitting. Your loved one may simply need to think things through in their own time in order to feel ready to start the process.
After many months spent contemplating what quality of life meant to him and what type of care he wanted to receive, Glen came around to the idea of preparing an advance directive. Although it was hard for him to sit with his own discomfort about death, he realized that the thought of being unable to choose how he wanted to live was what really scared him. No matter what, he decided, he wanted to live with dignity and purpose until the very end.
If you are in need of support to navigate your aging loved one’s end of life care, the compassionate staff at Institute on Aging are here for you. Reach out today to learn how we can be of assistance.