When Lou had a stroke at age 75 and became incapacitated, his two adult daughters argued about his medical treatment and had no idea what to do about his financial affairs. Divorced from his daughters’ mother years earlier, Lou hadn’t gotten around to doing a will or any planning in the event of a serious illness. 

A car accident left a 49-year old mother of four in intensive care, on a ventilator in a vegetative state. Her family agonized over the decisions they needed to make. Should they keep her on life support? What would she have wanted them to do? If they took her off the ventilator, did she want them to donate her organs? Emotions ran high and it seemed that no matter what, they were all second-guessing themselves. 

What if you had a serious accident or illness and you were unable to tell your doctors what kind of medical treatment you wanted? What if the same were true for a close family member? Do you have a plan as to who will handle your financial matters or make decisions about your healthcare if you no longer can?

Advance planning is a difficult topic to discuss. However, many families and healthcare providers are left to struggle with tough decisions if an individual hasn’t communicated his/her wishes, and doesn’t have a living will or someone designated as a durable power of attorney for healthcare. 

Advance planning can provide you and your family members with peace of mind and make things a little easier if the time comes when you can’t speak for yourself or handle your financial affairs. The purpose of advance directives is to give instructions on the kind of health care you do or don’t want, and to designate a surrogate to make medical decisions if you’re incapacitated.

 Elements of advance directives include the following:

  • Living Will: A living will provides instructions for health care providers as to when to use, withhold, or withdraw end-of-life medical care, such as being on a ventilator or a feeding tube. 

  • Durable Power of Attorney: A durable power of attorney gives someone the power to handle financial and other matters. A durable power of attorney for health care, or health care proxy, refers to the legal designation of someone who can make medical decisions when the individual is unable to do so. Someone with durable power of attorney for health care can make treatment decisions beyond those listed in a living will. It’s important to note that the authority to make medical decisions on a person’s behalf is not included in a general power of attorney. A general power of attorney is a written authorization to act on someone’s behalf in certain legal and financial matters, but it ends when the person becomes incapacitated.

In addition to developing advance directives, communicating them to healthcare professionals is equally important. Advance directives can only work if the surrogate understands the individual’s preferences, and health care providers are aware that the documents exist. 

In a nutshell, advance planning may be unpleasant to think about, but it’s a gift to yourself and your loved ones.