What Is a Living Will?
Unlike a Last Will and Testament, which is focused on distributing assets, an advance directive or "living will" is a legal document used to express one's wishes on end-of-life care. Each state has a version of health care directive forms. These are accessible via the U.S. Medicare site or at individual state sites. Many consider the "gold standard" to be a POLST form, which is a distinctive pink. You can learn whether your state has a POLST program and its status (unaffiliated, active, endorsed or mature) by consulting the National POLST Paradigm website. Some people wish to supplement the standard form with one that addresses even more of their specific concerns and desires.
Living wills have increased in popularity as people come to realize they want to ensure that their health care and other wishes are followed even if they become unable to speak for themselves. Additionally, planning ahead can make for a more comfortable transition for the person facing death while at the same time easing tensions and grief for those around them.
It's best to prepare a living will when you're feeling well and not facing an immediate health crisis.
You can choose a health care "agent" to serve as your representative and help direct your care in compliance with HIPAA, but be sure to check your state's laws and whether you need an attorney or notary to ensure the documents you have prepared are in proper order.
Five Wishes is an advance care planning offshoot of the nonprofit Aging with Dignity. FiveWishes.org is home to a living will that is unique in that it is designed to incorporate not just medical needs but personal, emotional and spiritual needs. It was designed and written with the help of the American Bar Association's Commission on Law & Aging and meets the legal requirements of 42 states. While the advance directive document is for ages 18 and up for legal reasons, the organization has versions to empower children and teens facing serious illnesses. The nonprofit's 5 Decisions Form is a starting point for writing down specific desires.
In addition to getting your wishes down on paper, it's important that you talk to the people in your life about what you want to take place. Your medical providers should place copies in their files and your loved ones should know where your living will and other important documents can be found.
It can be hard to find the time and emotional energy to articulate your overarching wishes for end-of-life care, decision-making and related issues. A public engagement initiative called The Conversation Project, founded by Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Goodman, guides people, caregivers and loved ones in discussions and decisions (both medical and emotional) surrounding end-of-life care.