Advance health care directives help people specify medical preferences

According to the Mayo Clinic, nearly three-quarters of Americans eventually find themselves in a medical situation where they are unable to communicate their wishes regarding health care to their providers. Both young and older persons encounter this problem. Fortunately, having an advance directive can help clarify your wishes so that providers know what steps to take when this happens.

Unfortunately, roughly two-thirds of older adults in the United States do not have an advance directive. The reasons for not taking this step vary. For many, it is the assumption that a spouse or children already know what they want. But it isn't necessarily easy for family to have a clear understanding of a loved one's wishes and to follow through on them unless they are specifically laid out.

Advance directives are an important part of the estate planning process. In coming up with the details of an advance directive, one should consider one's goals and values, and be sure to express any preferences for types of medical care honoring these values. The conversation should involve one's family and medical provider, and any other trustworthy people that understand your goals and concerns.

When one is ready to formalize one's decision, one will need to decide whether it is appropriate to do only a living will, or whether a power of attorney for health care-sometimes called a health care proxy-is also appropriate. A living will gives instructions to providers regarding health care preferences. A health care proxy is selected so that an individual is delegated to make decisions in situations not contemplated in the living will.

It is important to not only have conversations with family and medical doctors about these things, but also with an experienced attorney. Particularly for those who have wealth and difficult family dynamics, it is important to know the kinds of situations that can arise and the best steps to take to avoid them.

Source: Chicago Tribune, "Work through advance care planning process with people you trust," January 1, 2013

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