Living Wills and Advance Directives
Senior Medical Planning
There are three important background areas that you should learn about before entering into senior medical care. These are the medical oath and principles of your care providers, the rules created by Congress to ensure your medical information is protected and the decisions by your state on the specific document that you use to convey your wishes.
Doctors will frequently follow a set of principles that were originally called the Hippocratic Oath. The first oath was written by Hippocrates, a Greek doctor who is considered the father of modern medicine.
A modern version of the Hippocratic Oath typically states, "To practice and prescribe to the best of my ability for the good of my patients." Following this principle, your doctor will attempt to restore you to good health.
Because of modern improvements in medicine, it is possible to prolong your life through the use of ventilators, intravenous feeding and other devices. While you certainly want your doctors and nurses to provide very good care, you may also need to offer some guidance on how extensively your family and doctors should use modern technology to prolong your life.
A second major area to understand is called HIPAA. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed by Congress in 1996. It is designed to provide protection for you and to keep your health information private.
Under the HIPAA rules, you have the right to see your health records, but you must give your permission before the records are released to other individuals. The information provided by doctors or nurses about your care, medications or other personal information is protected. However, you will want to be certain that your designated healthcare proxy or person who will assist in making decisions has the right to review these records. There is a HIPAA release form that you will need to sign in order to enable your advisors to give proper recommendations to your doctors and nurses.
Finally, you must understand the specific documents of your state. Some states use an advance directive in which you would choose a combination of a durable power of attorney for healthcare and a living will. Other states have separate documents. It is very important that you use the appropriate document tailored for the laws of your state.
The Advance Directive
Your first key advisor is the person who will make your medical decisions if you are incapacitated. This individual is frequently called the healthcare proxy. He or she is your agent and holds your power of attorney for healthcare.
You will want to list the person, their address and phone number so he or she can be easily contacted. It is also quite common to select a second or third person to serve if the first person is unable or unwilling to serve.
Part of this section will also explain the level of authority that you have given. Your healthcare proxy usually does not have the authority to make decisions unless, in the view of your doctor, you are no longer able to make decisions yourself. However, many forms allow you to sign and empower that person immediately. The authority of your healthcare proxy may also extend after you pass away so that he or she can make appropriate decisions at that time.
Your healthcare proxy may be called upon to make significant decisions for your care. For example, it may be necessary to decide whether or not to use morphine or other types of pain medication. If the decision is to make use of morphine, then a second decision will be made on the use of a low dose or a high dose. With a lower dose of morphine or other types of pain medication, you may have greater clarity of mind but may be less comfortable. If you receive higher doses of medication, you may not be as clear-headed, even though you are at a higher comfort level. These decisions can only be made based on your condition at a given time, but they do directly impact the quality of your life in that circumstance.
A healthcare proxy may also be called upon to make very significant decisions about the hospital, nursing home or other care facility and the level of treatment. For example, some seniors have suffered broken hips or limbs at a time when their demise was near. A healthcare proxy will need to make decisions about the appropriate level of care or treatment under those circumstances.
A second section of an advance directive allows you to give counsel on the level of measures and technology that will be used to prolong your life. If you have an incurable or irreversible condition that will result in your death within a relatively short time, there are medical devices that can significantly prolong your life.
These are sometimes referred to as "heroic measures." If you desire all reasonable measures to be taken, you can generally request that care. If you do so, your life may be extended to the greatest extent possible under "generally accepted healthcare standards."
Your healthcare guidelines expressed in your advance directive will discuss the level of nutrition and hydration. If you prefer to receive nutrition and hydration through intravenous methods, you may specifically request those.
It is helpful for medical providers to have some level of direction for your pain management. If you prefer a higher level of pain management even though that gives you less clarity of thought, you may so indicate.
A third, fairly typical section of the advance directive covers donation of organs and designation of your primary doctor. If you would like to provide specific organs or designate specific purposes for the use of your body, you may identify the particular organs or discuss purposes. Common purposes include transplantation, therapy, research and education.
Advance directives and living wills may, under state law, be witnessed in a manner similar to the witnessing of your will. Some states require two witnesses or a notary to witness your advance directive. Check with your state law to make certain that you have complied with those requirements. A helpful website with state law requirements is www.caringinfo.org. It is maintained by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and seeks to improve care at the end of life.
After completing your living will or advance directive, you will sign and typically have witnesses for your original document. Prepare several copies of your advance directive. You will want to give a copy to your healthcare agent, your family, clergy, your doctors and other advisors who may be involved in assisting with your medical decisions.
At any time you may revoke the living will or advance directive. It generally is best to revoke the entire document and complete a new document. If you attempt to amend different parts of the advance directive, there is a risk that you may sign provisions that conflict or are inconsistent. If you are in need of urgent care or treatment, you do not want any conflicting provisions in your living will or advance directive.
Your living will or advance directive is a very important part of your personal planning. It is designed to help you receive the best possible care at the end of your life and still comply to the greatest extent with your personal healthcare preferences.