In the event you were in an accident and unable to speak on your own behalf, what medical choices would you want your family to make? It’s a difficult question to mentally chew on, yet it’s a consideration that could directly impact our health in a crisis situation.

An advance directive is a legal document created to record a person’s medical preferences for treatment in the event that he or she is unable to make healthcare decisions for him or herself. Filling out an advance directive ensures that your wishes regarding end-of-life care are clear and explicit and appoints a trusted representative to make decisions on your behalf. This document can include specific orders for treatments you would accept or refuse to continue living. An advance directive covers health and medical decisions only – it does not dictate any decisions about your finances or assets.

The best time to complete your advance directive is today. Planning ahead and communicating your preferences early on gives you the peace of mind of knowing your wishes will be followed and can save your loved ones immense anxiety.

There are generally two parts to an advance directive: 

(1) The Living Will details your medical wishes and preferences for care in the even that you are permanently unconscious or terminally ill. It explains the scenarios in which you would or would not want life-sustaining treatment.

(2) The Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, Health Care Power of Attorney or Health Care Proxy portion of an advance directive appoints a healthcare agent to make decisions on your behalf if you cannot communicate on your own. The agent (also called a proxy or attorney-in-fact) serves as your advocate in seeing your wishes are carried out.

Key points about advance directives

It is important to select your healthcare agent carefully. Your proxy must be at least 18 years of age, be willing to represent your views about end-of-life care, and clearly and assertively communicate your preferences to medical professionals. Your advance directive should list at least one phone number for where your healthcare agent can be reached. Listing an alternate proxy is wise in the event that your primary agent is unavailable.

Copies of your advance directive should be kept in a safe, accessible, and agreed upon place within the home. Completed advance directives should also be provided to physicians and placed in your medical record.

Although you do not need to work with an attorney to fill out an advance directive, it’s critical to realize that laws vary from state to state. If you are working with a geriatric social worker or a geriatric care manager, speak with them to learn more about completing an advance directive in line with your state’s rules. Forms can also be obtained from healthcare providers, your state health department, and your state Office on Aging.