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Living Wills Explained

Reviewed by: MySeniorCare Staff
Last Updated: 4/13/2010 4:00:13 PM

Unfortunately, most Americans are not well-versed in elder law, and the names of certain directives can be confusing.

Living wills, for example, are not the same as a last will and testament, and serve an entirely different purpose. Seniors who want to ensure their wishes are honored even in the event of an incapacitating illness should consider creating living wills.

According to a New Jersey survey on living wills, conducted by Rutgers, only an average of 16 percent of New Jersey residents have prepared some form of advanced directive, the majority of whom are over the age of 75. Most of the advanced directives are living wills, though they also include power of attorney documents, DNR orders and other forms.

What Is a Living Will?

A living will is a legally-binding document through which individuals can declare their wishes concerning medical treatment in the event of incapacitation. In other words, a stroke victim who loses the ability to read, write or otherwise communicate would be treated according to his or her living will.

This document is not intended to address issues of finances or assets, which is why multiple advanced directives are encouraged. It also does not appoint a guardian or custodian to make medical decisions on your behalf; it simply outlines the details of what you want concerning medical treatment.

The Five Wishes

It is recommended that seniors write living wills according to the "five wishes," which serve as a guideline for deciding exactly what to include in the document. These five wishes preclude the need for legal jargon or confusing text, and allow seniors and their caregivers to completely understand the process.

The five wishes include:

Who do you want to make decisions if you are not able? This aspect of living wills will likely require an attached Durable Power of Attorney, which appoints someone (friend or family member, for example) to make decisions if you are rendered unable by injury or illness. This should be someone you trust implicitly and who is likely to be mentally sound in the event of your incapacitation.

Which types of medical treatment do you approve? Living wills should also include directives concerning the types of medical treatment you want to undergo should you become ill or injured. Many people include a DNR order ("do not resuscitate order") in this section if they do not want to be revived after cardiac or respiratory arrest. This directive will supersede the wishes of the family.

How do you want to be kept comfortable? Another aspect of living wills is the desire to be kept comfortable. This might include where you want to stay if you are diagnosed with a terminal illness (e.g. at home, in a hospice, in a nursing home). You could specify that you want to be visited by a member of the clergy or that you wish to be bathed with certain frequency, or that you wish to be given sufficient pain medication to ensure maximum comfort.

How do you want to be treated? This is where, in living wills, seniors can determine how they want to be treated by others, including friends, family members, clergy, doctors and nurses.

What do you want to tell your loved ones? In the final section of five wishes concerning living wills, seniors can leave statements for their loved ones.

Not all states allow five wishes living wills, but there are versions for every state. An attorney can help you create advanced directives that ensure all your wishes are honored.

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