Health Care Decision Making: What about Living Wills and Health Care Powers of Attorney?

Seniors often ask about living wills. Is this something every senior (or perhaps every adult) should have? Also known as “Advance Directives,” a living will outlines your preference for medical treatment if you should become permanently unconscious or during an end-stage terminal illness. It is very important because you will not be able to express those preferences for yourself. Your medical provider has obligations for following standard medical procedures to preserve and extend life, but you have the legal right to choose standards for your own treatment. Your wishes are expressed in the advance directives or living will.

These wishes usually address whether to use mechanical respiration or other technology to keep your vital organs functioning, whether to supply hydration and or nutrition when you are unable to take in water or food independently, and what degree of medication or other techniques will be used to prolong life. Every individual approaches these decisions from his or her own ethical, personal and faith traditions, and should be able to control them. Having a document to express your wishes is important, and medical providers now routinely ask for a copy for their files and to direct their procedures.

You may also appoint an individual to give direction to medical providers when you are unable to do so yourself. The document to delegate this authority is called a “Health Care Power of Attorney” and the person appointed is referred to as your “Health Care Agent.” This person will be able to respond to treatment questions when you are unable to communicate, whether or not you are in a terminal or permanently unconscious state. Of course, they will be able to help with enforcing your advance directives if you go into such a state during the term of their agency.
Specialty Home Care cannot provide legal advice to clients. The counsel of your attorney and medical advisors is important as you consider your treatment choices. The Pennsylvania Department on Aging provides some valuable information and sample forms on their website at: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=616602&mode=2 You should review this before consulting your attorney, to prepare you to interact more knowledgably about the subject. Since SHC is a non-medical provider we do not need a copy of a client’s advance directives or health care power of attorney, but we will be glad to keep the name of your agent on file should you want us to contact him or her for any reason in case of an emergency.