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The AARP Poll Have your loved ones completed advance directives?

Advance Directives: Your Critical Action Plans

Fear, anxiety, and denial are just some of the all-too-human emotions that prevent people from taking care of themselves and expressing their wishes at the end of life. Whether you are the victim in an accident or are diagnosed with a serious illness, planning now for your future health care is one of the most important acts you will ever do for yourself and your loved ones.

What kind of treatment will you want? What won’t you want? Who do you want to make the call if you’re unconscious or in a coma? Advance directives help you answer these questions now, when you’re healthy.

They’re not just for older people. Accidents and illnesses can strike young people without warning. That’s why it’s so important to fill out your advance directives now—before a crisis happens. This article will get you started.

What Are Advance Directives? They’re legal documents that specify your wishes if you become unable to speak for yourself. While some may feel that filling out an advance directive equates to a loss of hope or a refusal of treatment, the truth is these documents are asking that you be treated how you want. There are two types of advance directives: a living will and a health care power of attorney.

. . . Planning now for your future health care is one of the most important acts you will ever do for yourself and your loved ones.

The Living Will This legal document sets forth your preferences for medical treatment at the end of life should you be unable to speak for yourself. It tells doctors and medical professionals your wishes regarding life-and-death decisions such as whether to accept or refuse life-prolonging treatment after a critical accident. Federal and state laws protect your living will. As each state authorizes the use of living wills differently, you should complete documents recognized by your state.

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The Health Care Power of Attorney Also called a health care proxy, appointment of health care agent, or durable power of attorney for health care, this document lets you appoint someone as your advocate to make decisions regarding your medical treatment and other health and personal care issues. It becomes effective only if you cannot make your own decisions. You may want to choose a family member or trusted friend.

The health care power of attorney covers only medical needs, and it differs from a durable power of attorney for financial affairs, which gives the advocate authority over your financial matters.

To complete your advance directives, you do not need a lawyer. However, you may wish to consult one to learn if your state requires that the documents are witnessed or notarized.

By appointing a health care power of attorney, you are giving your loved ones a tremendous gift—peace of mind to follow your wishes during this difficult time.

Life—and Death—Without Advance Directives A stroke. A heart attack. An auto accident. You’re suddenly incapacitated. A family member usually makes the health care calls. Yet all too often, family members—spouses, parents, siblings, and adult children—don’t know the wishes of their loved ones regarding treatment and medical decisions in a crisis. Your trusted family member may not make the decisions you’d have made.

Don’t leave your health care to chance. Take a moment to fill out your advance directives and ensure that your voice will be heard during critical decision-making times.

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Do I Need Both Documents? Yes. They go hand-in-hand to cement your wishes. During a crisis, you may need your health care power of attorney agent to speak for you and your living will to reflect your wishes in a legal, documented way.

How Do I Obtain Them? Any number of sources, including your doctor, local hospital, or long-term care facility. For more information go to

What Do I Do With Them? Put them in a safe place—a safety deposit box or a secure file cabinet at home. Make sure that your loved ones know where to find them and ask your doctor to include your advance directives in your medical chart as part of your permanent record.

Doctors and other health care providers are legally obligated to follow advance care directives because they contain your decisions about medical treatments. However, some doctors resist. If you encounter this, you may consider making changes before a conflict arises.

Sit down with the person you chose as your health care agent and talk about your wishes for end-of-life care. Give him or her a copy of the completed documents, and open the lines of communication between the two of you regarding concerns that may arise.

Advance directives provide the first step in an ongoing process of communication between you, your health care agent, and the medical professionals responsible for your care. The documents are a critical statement that your life is your own, and so is your death, and that the decisions about both belong to you.

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© 2003, 2004, 2007 AARP. Reprinting by permission only.

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Elinor Ginzler Planning for the Future
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