If you are under age 60, you may not yet have drafted the necessary documents designating someone to make medical decisions if you ever become mentally or physically incapacitated. But the legal battle over whether to disconnect the feeding tube that was keeping Terri Schiavo alive has served as a wake-up call. We need to take the steps necessary to ensure that we are medically treated or not treated—as we want to be.

During the days leading up to Terri Schiavo's death, news reports tended to focus on the living will as the document that's needed for end-of-life planning. You do need one—but that's not all you need.

Living Will

A living will is a legal document that lists your personal preferences concerning life support and other life-sustaining procedures or "heroic" measures—and gives instructions about therapies you wish to have (or not have). A living will typically addresses the use of medical devices such as feeding tubes or dialysis machines.

A living will is revocable at any time—but only by you. If you change your mind about any item addressed in the living will even while you're in the hospital—all you need to do is tell the person who is treating you and he/she must follow your instructions. It's federal law.

You can use a lawyer to create your living will, but it is not necessary. Each state now has its own official living will form. To get a free copy of the form for your state, contact Caring Connections, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), at www.caringinfo.org (where forms can be downloaded by clicking on "advance care planning") or call 800-658-8898 (forms will be sent to you).

Durable Power Of Attorney

But a living will is not enough. You also should have a durable power of attorney for health care (also known as a health care proxy). This allows you to transfer your health-care decision-making rights to another person. This is important if you become incompetent or are otherwise unable to make such decisions for yourself. You should have this in addition to a living will.

No special form is required. All you need to do is designate a specific person, in writing, as having your durable power of attorney for health care, sign it, date it and make sure you have it signed by a witness(es).* Like a living will, a durable power of attorney for health care can be changed or cancelled by you at any time—but you must do so in writing.

If you have not already done so, take the time to create these two vital documents. Do it today! No matter what your age, a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care are two of the most important documents you ever will create.

Once you have signed your living will and durable power of attorney for health care, give copies to each of your doctors, your immediate family members (and/or good friends) and anyone else who may be involved in your care.

These simple steps will ensure that you are in control of your life to the very end.

*Rules vary from state to state.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in