A Living Will is simply a document that lets medical staff and your loved ones know what kind of treatment you would and would not wish to receive if you become seriously ill and unable to speak for yourself. It is sometimes called a health care directive or advance health care directive.
It was such a wake-up call when my mother-in-law recently had a major stroke and suddenly became unable to communicate. Mom became paralyzed on one side, unable to swallow, and unable to speak, all at once. The stroke she suffered changed her circumstances in the blink of an eye. One day she was fine- still taking care of her home and her own affairs - and the next day she became completely dependent.
If this happened to you, how would you want to be treated? If your condition was life threatening, would you want extreme medical measures taken to stabilize you, only to be confined to a bed and unable to interact with those around you?
We found ourselves in the position of having to make choices for Mom, since these things had not been discussed in advance, and no health care directives were ever written up. This was extremely difficult at a time when we were already in shock over the effects of her stroke. Now it was up to us to decide whether she would have wanted to have a permanent feeding tube now that she could not swallow. And when she contracted an infection in the nursing home, and doctors advised us to "just let her go", we chose, instead, to control the infection aggressively with antibiotics. We, perhaps selfishly, were not ready to "let go". We wanted her to be as comfortable as possible, and we wanted the doctors to do everything possible to keep her alive. How could we choose otherwise?
But is this what she would have wanted? Doctors kept mentioning "quality of life'. Certainly, her quality of life had shifted, and after such a substantial stroke, would never again be the same. In time, we lost her anyway, and will never really know whether the choices we made for her, based on our own feelings, were what she would have chosen for herself.
The point of my article is this: Think about what you would want in similar circumstances, and make your wishes known to your family. You can do this, officially, through a lawyer; more casually, by writing up your own wishes; or even by verbally communicating how you feel to your loved ones ( though this may be difficult to work with if disagreement among family members crops up). It is never too early to talk about these things, though difficult. Still, it is important, and might be all your loved ones have to go by in the event that you are someday unable to speak for yourself.
A do-it-yourself Living Will that is very popular these days is called Five Wishes and is available at the Aging With Dignitywebsite. It is legal in 42 states - with four of those states requiring that it be notarized. To see what the form looks like (and to check whether your state is listed, visit the Five Wishes Preview page provided by Aging With Dignity. It is actually more than a living will, but it is nicely done and makes it easy to set forth your thoughts.
Wish One lets you choose who you want to make decisions for you if you become unable to make your wishes known. This is called "durable power of attorney for health care" in legal-speak.
Wish Two is a living will. This is where you would write what kind of treatments you would or would not wish to receive if you become very ill and are unable to communicate your wishes.
Wishes Three and Four let you describe exactly how you hope to be treated and cared for when you are unable to care for yourself.
Wish Five is where you can talk about your last wishes, including things and funeral arrangements, or speak about things that might mean a lot to you but have, perhaps, been left unsaid.
Consider having your own Living Will to help your loved ones make important decisions about your care if the need should arise.