How to Make End-of-Life Decisions

Most people are not comfortable discussing their deaths. However, we all want to die with dignity and to have others respect our final wishes. It's important, then, to take control and define the type of medical care we want-or don't want-at the end of our life.

Making end-of-life decisions and articulating your wishes while you can protects your family from unnecessary stress and averts medical confusion. For example, if you don't want medical professionals to perform life-saving measures when you will not recover, you must make this clear. The law mandates physicians keep life going, regardless of the cost, unless the patient has indicated otherwise.

Every adult should complete several important legal documents, called Advanced Directives, when making end-of-life decisions.  

Living Will. A living will states your wishes about medical care performed to sustain your life. The information in a living will includes end-of-life care goals, what types of treatment and medications you want, where you want to spend your final days, and other specifics such as sedation and ventilator use.  

Healthcare proxy. A healthcare proxy allows you to appoint someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf when you can't speak for yourself. It's also called a medical power of attorney (which is different from a financial power of attorney) or an appointed healthcare agent.

DNR. A DNR-Do Not Resuscitate-is a special advanced directive that tells health professionals, such as Emergency Medical Services, not to perform CPR if your heart and lungs stop functioning.

Will. A will outlines how you want to distribute your personal assets-money and property-after you die. While not a healthcare document, a will still ensures your family and the state honors your wishes. Well-executed wills save loved ones significant time, energy, and grief. We've all heard of families torn apart during the dispensation of assets due to lack of a will.

You can get advanced directive forms from your physician, a lawyer, or your local or state health department. You can also download forms from the Internet. The important thing is that you put your wishes in writing and let your family know. A living will in the bottom of a drawer will not do any good if you suddenly become incapacitated.

Remember, failure to complete advanced directives may prolong the dying process and cause unnecessary suffering for you and your loved ones.

Family Caregiving Alliance. "End-of-Life Decision-Making." Web.

Alzheimers Association. "End-of-Life Decisions." Web.

PBS. "End of Life Decisions." Web. 12 March 2010.

National Cancer Institute. "Advanced directives." Web. 6 May 2009.

National Cancer Institute. "Last Days of Life." Web. 31 August 2010.

National Cancer Institute. "Advanced Directives." Web. 7 March 2000.