Health Care Documents: Health Information for Older People

What are living wills and health care proxies? Are they just for people who are terminally ill?

A living will is a document that spells out your wishes for the kind of care you’ll receive if you’re not in a position to speak for yourself. A “durable power of attorney for health care” is a document that names a “health care proxy” — a person you choose to make health care decisions for you if you can no longer make them. Your proxy can reinforce decisions already spelled out in your living will, or handle situations and decisions your living will doesn’t address.

Together, your living will and durable power of attorney for health care are known as “advance directives.” For more information about advance directives, visit the websites for National Institute on Aging, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the National Cancer Institute, or the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging, which offers a “Consumer’s Tool Kit for Health Care Advance Planning.” The kit takes you through questions and issues you may face as you create an advance directive. State laws vary, so be sure your documents and wishes are in line with your state’s laws. You may want to consult an attorney. To find resources in your area visit the ABA Commission on Law and Aging’s Resources page.

Though advance directives typically deal with end-of-life decisions, you can make the directives — and change them — any time. They also can be used in non-life-or-death situations. For example, people diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease are encouraged to create advance directives for their care, in addition to legal documents that plan for their finances and estate.

Tell your doctor if you create an advance directive. In fact, talking with your doctor may help you decide whether you want to create a health care directive, and what you want to include.

To find legal services in your area, visit the ABA’s findlegalhelp.org. To search for an attorney who specializes in these kinds of issues, check out the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at naela.org or the National Elder Law Foundation at nelf.org.

Who Cares About Health Care Documents?

National Institute on Aging
1-800-222-2225
(TTY: 1-800-222-4225)

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
1-800-658-8898

National Cancer Institute
1-800-422-6237

American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging