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Personal choice and quality of life: making a living will

You don't have to be ill or injured to be concerned about what happens to you and your family should you become incapacitated. If you are like most people, you hear about what happens to others and you ignore that little voice in your head that says: "This could happen to you." Human beings have a useful psychological tool called denial in our psyche that helps us push away unpleasant thoughts.

Americans don't do well with end of life issues in the first place. For those of us who are able to address the issues around death and dying, we do so with great trepidation and uncertainty. Although we prepare for every other passage in life (birth, marriage, graduation and retirement), we tend to ignore the certainty of our own mortality and just let the chips fall where they may when it comes to making choices regarding our individual deaths. 

Because of advances in medical technology, people who might have otherwise died are now being kept alive by artificial means. The making of a living will allows you to choose the circumstances under which you wish to be left to die naturally rather than being kept alive by artificial life support. It also allows you to designate a person of your choice to see that your wishes are carried out.

So, what exactly is a living will and what does it include?

The correct legal title of a living will varies from state to state. Instead of a living will, your state may call the document an Advance Directive or a Health Care Proxy. Whatever it is called, it is a legal document approximately four pages in length that serves as clear and convincing evidence to a court or a physician or anyone else involved in your health care that you have communicated your personal choices and instructions regarding what measures (if any) are to be used to prolong your life should you become incapacitated and unable to make decisions for yourself.

A living will lists your choice for what is called a Heath Care Agent. This person has the legal authority to make any and all health care decisions on your behalf, including decisions about life-sustaining treatment. Usually people name a spouse, sibling or an adult child as their agent. Whoever you choose, that person should be willing and able to act on your behalf and see that your wishes are carried out, even if the circumstances are sad and traumatic. One mistake people often make is to name their agent but forget to talk to him or her about exactly what this appointment involves. You will need to communicate to your agent in no uncertain terms what exactly you wish them to do. Unpleasant as it may be to talk with your loved ones about your death, it is imperative to do so in order for a living will to be fully implemented.

Included in your living will are instructions or powers that are designated to your Heath Care Agent. The language again varies among states but basically the powers list out the individual's wishes regarding the withdrawal from life support machines and the denial of food and water as a means of sustaining life. In addition to specific instructions about life support, there should be a statement of your beliefs and wishes stated clearly within the document so that the agent who is expected to act on your behalf knows for certain, without any doubt, how you feel about dying. For example, a living will might state: "While I believe in the sanctity of life, I feel that circumstances may exist in which the effort to sustain my life may itself degrade or demean the humanity without which I feel my life has no meaning. I wish to retain the right to choose not to prolong my life to the agony of myself and my family."

Where can I draw up a living will?

You can obtain a living will through an attorney or a physician's office. Some people prefer to complete one on line but you would then want to be sure the document you create is checked over by an attorney. The document should always be signed, dated and witnessed by two people outside the family. Your doctors and lawyer as well as family members should all retain copies of your living will in their possession and you should review the document often with the professional people dealing with your health as well as with your family members.

There are countless circumstances surrounding illness and injury especially in later life. A living will cannot possibly cover every scenario that could happen to you, but it will provide you with peace of mind knowing that your wishes will be honored. The best way to insure that your wishes be carried out is to talk to your family and Health Care Agent frequently about your desires, much in the same way you would discuss guardianship of young children, funeral wishes, or dispensation of your valued possessions and assets.

In today's dramatic world of technology it is important to maintain control over your own life as much as possible. The making of a living will takes your most personal decisions out of the hands of doctors, lawyers and politicians and gives you two of life's most precious gifts – the freedom to choose for yourself and your family how to best end your life and the opportunity to hold fast to your own values regarding the quality of life.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Death, the law and you section helpful too.

Visit our Amazon store to find books on wills and probate.

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