Death is an unavoidable fact of life. The statistics regarding death still haven’t changed: 10 out of 10 people who are born will eventually die.
This still doesn’t make it any easier to talk about death or serious medical issues — especially with the ones we love. However, it’s important to talk with aging parents about what steps they would and wouldn’t want doctors to take if they were facing a health crisis and couldn’t communicate their wishes themselves.
The Role of the Advanced Healthcare Directive
The best way to make sure that your parents’ wishes are fulfilled if they are ever in this kind of medical situation is to help them prepare an advanced healthcare directive. Also referred to as a living will, this is a form on which your parents will detail in writing the types of medical treatment and life-sustaining measures they do or don’t want to have performed if they’re incapacitated and can’t make their wishes known.
Advanced healthcare directives are formal legal documents designed by each state. Documents vary from one state to the next, but most include two parts. The first part includes detailed instructions that doctors and nurses should follow regarding the use of life-sustaining treatments if one of your parents cannot decide this for himself or herself. Each state’s living will law specifies the specific medical conditions under which the directive applies — for example, in cases of terminal illness or permanent unconsciousness.
The second part allows parents to appoint someone as their power of attorney for healthcare to make more routine, but not life-sustaining, medical decisions for them if they can’t speak for themselves. These include decisions about things like taking certain medications or having certain procedures or surgeries performed.
Note that emergency medical technicians are not allowed to honor advanced healthcare directives. Once they arrive on the scene, EMTs must do whatever they can to stabilize an individual for transfer to a medical facility. The advanced medical directive will then be followed by the physician once he or she makes an evaluation of the patient’s specific medical condition.
When Multiple Directives Might Be Required
While advanced healthcare directives are legally valid throughout the U.S., not all states honor directives filled out in other states. If your parents spend a significant amount of time in more than one state — for example, if they live half the year in the north and half the year in Florida — it might be a good idea for them to complete an advanced healthcare directive in both locations.
Advanced healthcare directives don’t expire — they remain in effect until the person who drafted them dies or drafts a new one. Once a new advanced healthcare directive has been drafted, the previous one becomes invalid.
To download an advanced healthcare directive for the state or states where your parents live, visit the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) at CaringInfo.org. It’s not necessary to hire a lawyer to help your parents complete their advanced healthcare directive, but it is usually a good idea for another person to look over the document carefully to make sure it’s filled out accurately.
Once your parents’ advanced healthcare directives have been completed, copies should be filed with their primary care physician and local hospital and also kept in safe location like a fireproof safe or bank safety deposit box. Also make sure that all family members or other individuals who might be involved in making end-of-life decisions about your parents are aware of their wishes as spelled out in the document.
Discuss This With Your Parents Now
It might not be easy to bring up the topic of completing an advanced healthcare directive with your parents. But doing so while they’re still healthy both physically and mentally can help make things much easier if their health takes a serious turn for the worse later.