1. A Living Will is a “DNR” (Do Not Resuscitate).
Living Wills are also called “advance directives” or “directives to physicians.” They outline what kind of medical treatment you would want in certain circumstances. Your Living Will may state that you do not want to be resuscitated if you have a terminal illness. It might say the opposite, however: It may say you want every treatment possible including experimental treatments.
Just because your Living Will says you do not want CPR if you have a terminal illness, this still only applies if you actually have a terminal illness. If I get hit by a car tomorrow and my heart stops, you can bet that I want CPR if I flatline. If, however, grow to a frail old age, I have exhausted all of my medical options and treatment will only prolong the inevitable, obviously I don’t want anyone cracking my ribs while I breathe my last.
2. If I want to be a “DNR”, I won’t receive medical treatment.
This myth is often why people delay referrals to hospice, yet it is simply false. It is true that if you enter hospice with a cancer diagnosis, insurance will not pay for curative treatments. But even radiation treatments are sometimes covered by hospice if it is for a “palliative” (feel-good) reason, e.g. if a tumor might be shrunk to reduce pressure on nerves thereby relieving pain.
If you’re diabetic you are still eligible for all of your insulin, supplies and medication coverage, regardless of your DNR status (or admission to hospice). If you fall and break your hip at any time, this will be treated even if you don’t want CPR if your heart stops from an unrelated terminal disorder.
3. I have a Living Will so my wishes will automatically be followed.
Besides advance directives, in order to ensure you receive the kind of medical treatment you would choose if you were able to direct things yourself, it is best to name a health care surrogate, i.e. an agent under power of attorney.
Power of Attorney documents sometimes are included in the same document as a Living Will, but they are distinct legal instruments. One says what you want done. The other says who you want to appoint to make sure what you want done gets done. Living Wills are at best carefully worded guesses of what future medical catastrophes you may find yourself in; at worst they are vague forms that are barely applicable in most medical situations.
A medical surrogate should know your wishes, your values, your religious preferences, and should be someone you can trust to carry on your treatment as they believe you would want done. A medical power of attorney can avoid the need for the courts to appoint a guardian for you whereas a living will alone will not; most of my wards over the years have had advance directives.
4. My family knows what I want, so I don’t need a living will.
Two words: Terri Schiavo. She had no living will, and two factions of her immediate family warring over what she would have wanted for herself proceeded to, I presume, generously line the pockets of their respective attorneys. If my assumption is true, I’m sure the lawyers didn’t mind, but I’m equally certain the litigation did nothing to serve Terri’s or her family’s best interest.
5. Living Wills are for people of advanced age or people who have a terminal illness.
An Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong.com poll found that 64% of “boomers” (people born between 1946 and 1964) say they don’t have a health care proxy or living will. Those documents would guide medical decisions should a patient be unable to communicate with doctors.
“I’m very healthy for my age so, death and dying isn’t on my mind a lot.”
I’ll repeat: Terri Schiavo. She was born in 1963. She was 27 years old when she was put on life support. I’m sure if she had a do-over, she would have been glad to avoid ripping her family apart on a public stage.
About the Author: Dawn R. Walters is an Arizona Licensed Fiduciary in Private Practice and a National Master Guardian. She has served as guardian for vulnerable adults for over a decade. She educates others on topics including guardianship, rights advocacy, elder abuse remedies and awareness, and life planning. She is a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Texas, holding dual degrees in Government and Latin American Studies. She is serving her second 3-year term as Secretary for the Board of Directors for the Arizona Fiduciaries Association.