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Does Your Family Know Your Advance Directives?

Adults generally do not spend a lot of time worrying about dying. Most people do not spend time thinking about what might happen to them if they were to get into a sudden accident and be placed on life support.

Many times it takes a sudden death that is featured in the news to get adults to consider a key question, "Will your family know your final wishes in a time of crisis?"

Sudden death of someone before their time is a stark reminder of just how short life is and how quickly life can change and be over--in an instant. The sudden deaths of Michael Jackson, Steve Irwin, John F. Kennedy Jr., Princess Diana, Heath Ledger, John Ritter, John Lennon and Natasha Richardson to name just a few are heartbreaking reminders of how quickly life can suddenly end.

Actress Natasha Richardson's sudden, unexpected accident and death in March 2009 left her family needing to make difficult choices. Her family was faced with decisions of what to do about life support and once it was realized the injuries were life-ending ones, whether she would have wanted to be an organ donor. Ultimately her family requested that her organs be donated to other patients whose lives they might save.

Natasha Richardson's sudden death, in particular, can serve as a reminder to make sure that your loved ones know your final wishes in the event that you are ever placed on life support.

What is Advance Care Planning?

Advance Care Planning is taking the time to learn about life support and end of life care choices before there is a health crisis. Another way of phrasing it is deciding what will happen with your life on your own terms. With advanced care planning you can make choices and give directions to those left behind as to what you would want done in the event of a life-threatening medical event taking into consideration your own priorities, beliefs and values.

Once you have decided on your choices, it is time to share your wishes in writing in an advance directive.

What are Advance Directives?

advance directives

Caring Connections (part of the The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization) defines Advance Directives as two types of legal documents that enable you to plan for and communicate your end-of-life wishes in the event that you are unable to communicate. One is a living will and the other a medical power of attorney.
  • A living will - The will allows a person to document his or her wishes concerning medical treatments at the end of life.
  • A medical power of attorney (or healthcare proxy) - The medical power of attorney allows a person to appoint someone he or she trusts as a healthcare agent (or surrogate decision maker), who is authorized to make medical decisions on the person's behalf.

Put Your Wishes (Advanced Directives) in Writing

Put it in Writing Booklet is a 10-page online booklet developed by the American Hospital Association with support from the Society of Hospital Medicine. With this booklet people are encouraged to explore their choices and preferences for care in the event that they might be placed on life support and also preferences for care at the end of life.

The Put it in Writing consumer outreach initiative was created in 2005 to teach the public about the importance of Advance Care Planning and of putting those wishes in writing.

Take Time to Talk - Tell Them About Your Advanced Directives

Putting your advance directives in writing is only the first step. You also need to make sure to take time to talk to your loved ones and tell them about your final wishes in your advanced directives.

Conversations Before the Crisis is a 16-page online booklet from Caring Connections, part of the The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. This helpful online resource provides tips and suggestions of ways to talk about end of life care using different conversation triggers before the crisis.

Steps to Ensure Your Final Wishes will be Carried Out

Sudden, unexpected deaths serve as reminders to everyone about how fleeting life is. Even more so, a sudden death is a reminder to make sure that your final wishes have been determined, documented and shared. Here are the steps to take to ensure your final wishes will be carried out:
  1. Learn about advanced care options.
  2. Decide on your advanced care wishes.
  3. Document your wishes. Put it in writing.
  4. Tell someone about your wishes.

Making your advanced care wishes known and documented them in writing will make it easier for families to know what you would want done when faced with unexpected life-threatening health challenge, sudden accident or terminal circumstance that requires life support.
Having a loved one's wishes documented in writing and knowing what that person would want done makes the task of making difficult choices in a time of crisis a bit easier for the family left behind.

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