Have you talked with your family and loved ones about how you want to die? Do you know how you want to be treated (or not treated) if you are suddenly injured, or suffer a stroke, or for some other reason are not able to make decisions for yourself?

On March 5th, NPR’s Morning Edition presented a story about the town of La Crosse, Wisconsin, in which 96 percent of people who die have an advance directive in place. This is far above the national average of only 30 percent. Thanks to medical ethicist Bud Hammes, who has devoted his efforts to educating health care providers and individuals about this important document, people in La Crosse have learned to talk about how they want their medical affairs handled in the event that they are not able to communicate those wishes themselves.

An advance directive is a legal document that describes a person’s wishes regarding medical care and ensures that those wishes will be carried out. It may include information about your position on receiving resuscitation, mechanical ventilation, nutritional and hydration assistance, and dialysis. It should be compatible with your living will and health care power of attorney, if you have one; if it conflicts with these documents, it can lead to confusion among family members and physicians in the event that you become unable to communicate your own wishes. An advance directive is not the same as a living will; a living will is a type of advance directive, but it only goes into effect if you are declared terminally ill, whereas an advance directive can be used for non-terminal situations. Advance directives can vary from state to state, and some states do not accept the advance directives of other states. It is important to review your advance directive periodically to make sure it still reflects your wishes and to update it after a move to another state.

For family members and friends of people who suffer an illness or accident and are unable to directly express their wishes, an advance directive goes a long way toward relieving them of the moral dilemma of making decisions for someone else. When a loved one is unable to communicate, their family members often agonize – and sometimes argue – over the best course of action. What a relief it is to know that that person has already made his or her own decisions and that you are doing exactly what they want!

Talking about death isn’t easy or comfortable, but it is important to plan ahead in order to spare your whole family a tremendous amount of pain further down the line. Plan for the unexpected now so that everyone can rest easy in the future.

For help getting started with your own advance directive or advice about how to open this delicate conversation with a loved one, give us a call at Elder Law of East Tennessee. We will help to walk you through the process and ensure that your wishes are met now and in the future.