What is a Living Will?

A living will is a legal document that explains the medical treatments you would, and wouldn’t, want to be used to keep you alive, if you were unable to communicate. This document also includes other decisions that may need to be made including pain management and organ donation.

Although it may seem like simple yes or no answers, these are big decisions. When thinking about your living will, consider the things that are most important to you. What makes your life worth living now? Is it being self-sufficient? Do you want your life extended despite the circumstances? Or, do you only want care if a cure is possible? Questions like these can help define what you truly wish for.

Sometimes it can even help to discuss your wishes with your doctors, friends, and family.

Many end-of-life care decisions should be addressed in your living will, including:

  • Resuscitation which will restart the heart when it has stopped beating. You should specify if, and when you would want to be resuscitated by cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or by a device that delivers an electric shock to stimulate the heart.
  • Mechanical ventilation maintains breath if you’re unable to breathe alone. Indicate if, when and for how long you would want to be placed on a mechanical ventilator.
  • Tube feeding provides nutrients via a tube to the stomach when someone is not capable of eating on their own. Include if, when and for how long you would want to have a feeding tube in your living will.
  • Dialysis, which will remove waste from your blood and manage fluid levels, can be a treatment option if your kidneys no longer function. Think about if, when and for how long you would want to receive this treatment.
  • Antibiotics or antiviral medications can be used to treat many infections. If you were near the end of life, would you want infections to be treated using these medications?
  • Comfort care, which includes interventions such as, dying at home, pain medications, or even ice chips can be included in your living will. Anything that can be used to manage pain and keep you comfortable, while considering your other treatment options, should be noted.
  • Organ and tissue donations can be specified in your living will. If your organs are removed for donation, you will be kept on temporary life-sustaining treatment until the procedure is complete. To help avoid any confusion, you may want to state in your living will that you understand the need for this temporary intervention.
  • Donating your body for scientific study also can be specified. Contact a local medical school, university or donation program for information on how to register for a planned donation for research. Then, indicate this information in your living will.

Your living will must be signed by you and a witness. This document may need further authorization to become valid depending upon the state, so check your local regulations. This document will not go into effect until you are unable to communicate, or make your own decisions.

You’ll want to keep the original in a safe place, then provide your doctor and health care agents with a copy. You should also keep a card in your wallet, specifying that you have a living will, as well as informing family and friends about your living will.

For more information, please contact your primary care doctor.

Sources: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mayo Clinic, Caring Info