The Importance of a Living Will

September 1, 2019

by rebecca stewart

Remember those difficult conversations we were talking about in helping families cope with long-term illnesses? Well, this one's a biggie. Our experts - Joan Fawcett, Director of Admissions and Sami Young, Social Worker at St. John's United (formerly St. John's Lutheran Ministries) and Simmy Audet, Care Manager at Billings Clinic - eagerly expounded upon the importance of getting this (among others) document in place sooner rather than later. Simmy says that while they encourage all older individuals to have a living will in place, anyone over the age of 18 should, at the very least, be having conversations about their wishes. Anyone, at any age, could have an accident or unexpected incapacitating illness. And, she reminds us, we can't presume to know what our loved one would want to be done in those situations, citing cases such as Terri Schavio and Karen Ann Quinlan.

But let's back up, first, let's define what a "living will" or advance directive is:

According to the Mayo Clinic, "Living wills and other advance directives are written, legal instructions regarding your preferences for medical care if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance directives guide choices for doctors and caregivers if you're terminally ill, seriously injured, in a coma, in the late stages of dementia, or near the end of life."

The document that we primarily discussed is Five Wishes. This living will is an incredible, comprehensive document that covers an individual's wishes for: 

  1. The person I want to make care decisions for me when I can't (Medical Power of Attorney, a.k.a. "Health Care Agent")
  2. The kind of medical treatment I want or don't want
  3. How comfortable I want to be
  4. How I want people to treat me
  5. What I want my loved ones to know

If you already have a living will in place, but would like to switch to Five Wishes instead, you simply need to destroy all copies of the old living will and Medical Power of Attorney or write, "revoked" across the copy you have. Once your Five Wishes paperwork is filled out and notarized, make copies for everyone who might need one: 

  • All hospitals in your area
  • Anyone listed as a Health Care Agent
  • Other family members who should be in the know as to your wishes. Again, this is not information you want to be kept top secret.
  • Simmy advises keeping a copy in your vehicle's glove compartment
  • Keep the original at home

Filling out the Five Wishes document can be emotional and difficult, but it's so important to have a living will in place. As Simmy says, "It's a gift to families to get this done ahead of time." Also, you have the power to change the document as you see fit. It is not set in stone; remember to provide updated copies to all the pertinent people and places in the event of a change.

These documents are vital, as they convey the person's wishes for a time when they might not be able to speak for themselves.

For more information about Advanced Directives, contact the Care Management Department at Billings Clinic: 406.238.2877. 

Originally printed in the September 2019 issue of Simply Family Magazine

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