Advance care planning is not just about old age. At any age, a medical crisis could leave you too ill to make your own health care decisions. Even if you are not sick now, planning for health care in the future is an important step toward making sure you get the medical care you would want, if you are unable to speak for yourself and doctors and family members are making the decisions for you.
Many Americans face questions about medical treatment but may not be capable of making those decisions, for example, in an emergency or at the end of life. This article will explain the types of decisions that may need to be made in such cases and questions you can think about now so you’re prepared later. It can help you think about who you would want to make decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself. It will also discuss ways you can share your wishes with others. Knowing who you want to make decisions on your behalf and how you would decide might take some of the burden off family and friends.
What is advance care planning?
Advance care planning involves learning about the types of decisions that might need to be made, considering those decisions ahead of time, and then letting others know—both your family and your health care providers—about your preferences.
These preferences are often put into an advance directive, a legal document that goes into effect only if you are incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself. This could be the result of disease or severe injury—no matter how old you are. It helps others know what type of medical care you want.
An advance directive also allows you to express your values and desires related to end-of-life care. You might think of it as a living document—one that you can adjust as your situation changes because of new information or a change in your health.
Making your advance care wishes known
There are two main elements in an advance directive—a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. There are also other documents that can supplement your advance directive. You can choose which documents to create, depending on how you want decisions to be made. These documents include:
•Durable power of attorney for health care
•Other advance care planning documents
Medical issues that might arise at the end of life include:
•Organ and tissue donation
•POLST and MOLST forms
How to choose your health care proxy
If you decide to choose a proxy, think about people you know who share your views and values about life and medical decisions. Your proxy might be a family member, a friend, your lawyer, or someone in your social or spiritual community. It’s a good idea to also name an alternate proxy. It is especially important to have a detailed living will if you choose not to name a proxy.
You can decide how much authority your proxy has over your medical care—whether he or she is entitled to make a wide range of decisions or only a few specific ones. Try not to include guidelines that make it impossible for the proxy to fulfill his or her duties. For example, it’s probably not unusual for someone to say in conversation, “I don’t want to go to a nursing home,” but think carefully about whether you want a restriction like that in your advance directive. Sometimes, for financial or medical reasons, that may be the best choice for you.
Of course, check with those you choose as your health care proxy and alternate before you name them officially. Make sure they are comfortable with this responsibility.
Making your health care directives official
Once you have talked with your doctor and have an idea of the types of decisions that could come up in the future and whom you would like as a proxy, if you want one at all, the next step is to fill out the legal forms detailing your wishes. Don’t depend on the lawyer to help you understand different medical treatments. Start the planning process by talking with your doctor.
—National Institute on Aging