2005-05-26 / Savvy Senior


Dear Savvy Senior,

I didn’t actually know the difference between a “will” and a “living will” until the Terri Schiavo case made headlines last month. It’s amazing how legally complicated it can be to die. My husband and I have both found the Schiavo saga very troubling and want to make sure that doesn’t happen to our family. Can you give us some information on living wills and advance directives, without the legal jargon, and how to go about getting these done?

Legally Ready

Dear Ready,

The Terri Schiavo case sparked a huge interest on a matter most people never knew or thought much about: living wills. Each year, more than 80 percent of Americans who die in hospitals, hospices or nursing homes are confronted with decisions about whether to continue or stop life-sustaining treatment, but only about 25 percent actually have a living will. Here are some things you should know.

Advance Directives

This is a formal term that describes two kinds of legal documents that will spell out your wishes regarding your end-of-life medical treatment when you can no longer make or communicate decisions for yourself. The two documents are:

• Living will: A document that tells your doctor what kind of care you want to receive if you become incapacitated.

• Durable power of attorney: A document that designates your health-care proxy, the person you’ve chosen to make medical decisions for you should you become incapacitated. Most states recommend that patients designate a primary proxy as well as an alternate.

Getting Started

You can create your own living will and appoint a durable power of attorney without the help of a lawyer. Here are some good resources to help you get started:

• The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization: Provides free information and state-specific advance directive forms with instructions on their Web site (www.caringinfo.org) that you can download. Or, you can call their hotline at 800-658-8898 and they will mail them to you and answer any questions you may have.

• Aging with Dignity: An advocacy organization that offers an easy-to-use legal document called “Five Wishes” that covers all facets of an advance directive that will help you plan how you want to be cared for in case you become seriously ill. Five Wishes is legally valid in most states and costs $5. To get a copy, visit www.agingwithdignity.org or call 888-594-7437.

• U.S. Living Will Registry: A service that electronically stores your advance directives and organ donor information and makes these documents available to your family or health care providers 24 hours a day via the Internet or telephone. They also provide advance directive forms from all 50 states. Visit www.uslivingwillregistry.com.

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