Planning to Age With Dignity

Planning for Health Care Decisions

SeniorLAW Center

100 S. Broad St.
Suite 180
Philadelphia, PA 19110
Tel 215-988-1244
Intake: 215-988-1242

Continuing our proud tradition of providing free quality legal services and
community education to Philadelphia's elders since 1978.

Where To Begin?

Start by talking to your doctor and family. The creation of health care advance directives should he clone after careful consideration of your health care treatment goals in consultation with your doctor, family, friends, and anyone else who you think should know your wishes.

Before filling out any health care directive form, you and the person you expect to name as your surrogate or agent should talk to your doctor about what health problems you may face in the future based on your current health and health history.
While you do not need a lawyer to make Health Care Advance Directives, a lawyer can be helpful if your family situation is uncertain or complex, or if you expect problems to arise.

Each year, SeniorLAW Center helps hundreds of seniors with health care directives and provides community education sessions and professional trainings on this important issue. Contact us today!

The Importance of Communication

Simply talking to your doctor, your family, and your friends is the most important thing you can do to plan for health care decision making in the event you are not able to make such decisions for yourself. While it can be a hard subject to talk about, it is absolutely necessary because the decisions that are made about you are only as good as the discussions they are based on.

Putting your directives in writing does not replace communication. By talking to those close to you and your doctor, you are providing important information about your health care treatment goals that can help to clarify or reinforce your written directives, or provide guidance for situations that your documents may not anticipate.

What Are Health Care Advance Directives?

After the Terri Schiavo case, many people want to know how to draw up health care advance directives so that they can make sure their wishes for end of life care are known and honored. Health care advance directives allow you to give instructions about your health care if, in the future, you cannot speak for yourself.

There are two kinds of Health Care Advance Directives. An Advance Health Care Declaration, also called a "Living Will", allows you to state the type of care you do or do not wish to receive if you are terminally ill and incapacitated or in a persistent vegetative state You can also pick a person to be a "surrogate" who will be in charge of carrying out your wishes as stated in the document

A Health Care Power of Attorney, on the other hand, allows you to appoint a trusted person (called the "agent" or "proxy") who can make medical treatment decisions for you if you are simply tillable to make health care decisions for yourself.

Both documents allow you to choose who gets to make decisions for you. Think carefully while you make your choice. The ideal person is someone who knows your personal preferences and beliefs, and will stand up for you and deal with others who may disagree. You should also select an alternate in case the person you choose is unavailable for any reason.

Which Type of Health Care Advance Directive Should You Have?

If you have someone who can serve as your agent, it is best to have both types to ensure that your preferences for all kinds medical treatment are honored when you cannot speak for yourself. The directives can be in one combined document or in two separate documents. Copies of all of your health care directives should be given to your doctor and other health care providers, your family and friends.

Get The Facts

Myth: I heard that if I have a Living Will, my doctor will just "pull the plug."

Reality: This is FALSE. A Living Will does not instruct your doctor not to treat you. Rather it is used to provide instructions about the kind of treatment that you want to receive at the end of your life. What is said in the document is tip to you and depends on your particular wishes and values.

Myth: If I have a Living Will my doctors will know what to do if I am unable to express my wishes.

Reality: While a Living Will is a useful tool to express your wishes about end of life care, most Living Will forms are pretty limited in the circumstances they cover and your instructions will almost always need to be interpreted.

Under PA law, your Living Will is only used if you are terminally ill and incapacitated or in a persistent vegetative state. Therefore, if you are only going to have one document, it should be a Health Care Power of Attorney because it empowers a person you choose to make all health care decisions for you if you simply lack the capacity to make them for yourself.

Myth: Once I sign Advance Directives, I've given up control of my health care.

Reality: This is simply untrue. All competent adults, whether they have signed advance directives or not have a fundamental right to make their own medical decisions. A competent person's currently expressed choice will always override their health directives.

Myth: If I do not have Advance Directives I can rely on my family to make the decisions for me.

Reality: This is partially true. Where your family members all know your wishes, and all agree about what to do, you may not need to put your instructions in writing. However, if you do not have Advance Directives, problems can arise when family members are unsure or disagree about the decision that needs to be made. When this happens, a doctor who does not know you well could end up being the decision maker, or worse, the matter may end up in court.