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End-of-Life Decision Making

Advance Directives

"Do everything you can to save my father." Doctors hear this often. It's the way many families respond as they obviously do not want to lose a loved one, but it's not necessarily what their father would have said. That's why people need to think about advance directives (sometimes called living wills) for medical care and the appointment of a health care agent.

What are advance directives?

Advance directives are documents, written while a person is still able to make decisions, that express their wishes related to life support in case they are not able to express their wishes in the future. These include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), respirators, and any other measures that the person cares to list.

Why does the advance directive only apply if the person is mentally unable to make decisions?

When the person is still mentally capable, the doctor can just ask the person about his or her preferences concerning treatment. The advance directive is a document that gives the health care team guidance on the patient's wishes only if the patient is unable to express those desires.

Why would someone not want CPR?

Most relatively healthy people would want CPR if their heart were to stop. That's because if CPR is successful, they can expect to recover, leave the hospital, and continue with their active lives for a reasonable period of time. Some elderly or terminally ill people who have become incurably frail might decide not to have measures instituted that will either only extend their lives in a vegetative state or result in their being senseless because of their specific medical condition. Some people decide that they won't want CPR and respirators once they can no longer remember the names of their children (or their own names).

Why would someone want CPR?

Some people might make the opposite decision. They might decide to have CPR and machines to support artificial breathing because they want to live as long as possible. If you make a decision like that, it will be respected by doctors and hospitals. The doctor is expected to make a reasonable decision about which measures might help and are reasonable. The input of the patient in this process is very important. Your personal and religious beliefs will influence these decisions.

  • If you check into the hospital for any reason, even if you're not in any life-threatening danger, federal law requires the hospital to ask if you want CPR. You must be offered a document to sign after selecting certain choices about what treatment you want if you lose your mental competence. However, the paper cannot indicate which choices would be the wise ones to make.
  • Even if a patient decides they do not want CPR, they may check off that they would still want antibiotic therapy, IV fluid therapy, and artificial feeding through a tube. They do this because they feel as if they can recover.
  • On the other hand, if they visualize a time when they can't talk or understand conversation -- signs of the end stages of organic brain syndrome, dementia or senility, they might decide that they wouldn't want IV fluid, antibiotic therapy, or artificial feeding through a tube. They might want the medical team to concentrate on comfort measures rather than life-prolonging measures. A person who is writing advance directives needs to plan for such an end stage of life.
  • Another option is to refrain from writing advance directives that specify particular treatments but, instead, to designate a health care agent. The agent would be someone who will make decisions for you when you can no longer make them for yourself. Then, just tell your health care agent what your wishes would be in various situations. The person you name as your health care agent will then make decisions (once you are not able to make them) as per your previous instructions and guidance.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/20/2016

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Choosing a Health Care Agent

Choosing a health care agentis an important decision that will help ensure that your wishes for medical care will be respected if you are not able to speak for yourself. The following steps will help you choose and then prepare your agent for speaking on your behalf.

  1. Choose someone you trust to be your agent. Think about who in your life knows you well and who could intelligently apply this knowledge in different circumstances. Also, consider whether the person could handle the stress and emotional turmoil that can go along with these important decisions. Be sure he or she could handle this responsibility. It may help to review some basic considerations for choosing a health care agent.
  2. See what things to include in your advance directive, and take time to carefully consider medical issues and the types of care available in different situations. Talk to your agent about your values and preferences for medical treatment.


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