Heath and Aging

End of Life: Helping with Comfort and Care

Planning for End-of-Life Care Decisions

Because of advances in medicine, each of us, as well as our families and friends, may face many decisions about the dying process. As hard as it might be to face the idea of your own death, you might take time to consider how your individual values relate to your wishes for end-of-life care.

By deciding what end-of-life care best suits your needs when you are healthy, you can help those close to you make the right choices when the time comes. This not only respects your values, but also may give your loved ones comfort.

There are several ways to make sure others know the kind of care you want when dying.

Talk about End-of-Life Wishes

The simplest, but not always the easiest, way is to talk about end-of-life care before an illness. Discussing your thoughts, values, and desires about end-of-life care before you become sick will help people who are close to you to know what care you want. You could discuss how you feel about using life-prolonging measures (for example, CPR or a ventilator) or where you would like to be cared for (for example, home or nursing home). Doctors should be told about these wishes as well.

For some people, it makes sense to bring this up at a small family gathering. Some may find that telling their family they have made a will (or updated an existing one) provides an opportunity to bring up this subject with other family members. As hard as it might be to talk about your end-of-life wishes, knowing your preferences ahead of time can make decision-making easier for your family. You may also have some comfort knowing that your family can choose what you want.

On the other hand, if your parents (or another close relative or friend) are aging and you are unsure about what they want, you might introduce the subject. You can try to explain that having this conversation will help you care for them and do what they want. You might start by talking about what you think their values are, instead of talking about specific treatments. Try saying something like, “When Uncle Isaiah had a stroke, I thought you seemed upset that his kids wanted to put him on a respirator.” Or, “I’ve always wondered why Grandpa didn’t die at home. Do you know?”

Encourage your parents to share the type of care they would choose to have at the end of life, rather than what they don’t want. There is no right or wrong plan, only what they would like. If they are reluctant to have this conversation, don’t force it, but try to bring it up again at a later time.

Prepare Advance Directives and Other Documents

Written instructions letting others know the type of care you want if you are seriously ill or dying are called advance directives. These include a living will and healthcare power of attorney. A living will records your end-of-life care wishes in case you are no longer able to speak or make decisions for yourself.

You might want to talk with your doctor or other healthcare provider before preparing a living will. This will help you have a better understanding of what types of decisions might need to be made. Make sure your doctor and family have seen your living will and understand your instructions.

Because a living will cannot give guidance for every possible situation, you probably want to name someone to make care decisions for you if you are unable to do so for yourself. You might choose a family member, friend, lawyer, or someone in your religious community. Of course, you should make sure the person you have named (and alternates) understand your views about end-of-life care and are willing to make those decisions on your behalf. You can do this either in the advance directives or through a durable power of attorney for health care that names a healthcare proxy, who is also called a representative, surrogate, agent, or attorney-in-fact.

Durable means it remains in effect even if you are unable to make decisions. A durable power of attorney for health care is a useful document if you don’t want to be specific—if you’d rather let a proxy evaluate each situation or treatment option independently. This document is particularly important if your healthcare proxy—the person you want to make choices for you—is not a legal member of your family.

If you don’t name someone, the State you live in probably has an order of priority based on family relationships to determine who decides for you.

Don’t confuse a durable power of attorney for health care with a durable power of attorney. The first is limited to decisions related to health care, while the latter covers decisions regarding property or financial matters.

A lawyer can prepare these papers, or you can do them yourself. Forms are available from your local or State government, from private groups, or on the Internet. (See To Learn More about Advance Directives and Living Wills.) Often, these forms need to be witnessed. That means that people who are not related to you watch as you sign and date the paperwork and then sign and date it themselves as proof that the signature is indeed yours.

Make sure you give copies to your primary doctor and your healthcare proxy. Have copies in your files as well. Hospitals might ask for a copy when you are admitted, even if you are not seriously ill.

You should also give permission to your doctors and insurance companies to share your personal information with your healthcare proxy. This lets your proxy discuss your case with the doctor and handle insurance issues that may come up.

Sometimes, people change their minds as they get older or after they become ill. Review the decisions in your advance directives from time to time, and make changes if your views or your health needs have changed. Be sure to discuss these changes with your healthcare proxy and your doctor. Replace all copies of the older version with the updated ones, witnessed and signed if appropriate.

Do you live in one State, but spend a lot of time in another? Maybe you live in the north and spend winter months in a southern State. Or, perhaps your children and grandchildren live in a different State and you visit them often. Because States’ rules and regulations may differ, make sure your forms are legal in both your home State and the State you travel to often. If not, make an advance directive with copies for that State, too, and be sure your family there has a copy.

To Learn More about Advance Directives and Living Wills

Some resources to help you learn more about advance directives and living wills:

Aging with Dignity
1-888-594-7437 (toll-free)
fivewishes@agingwithdignity.org (email)

American Bar Association
1-800-285-2221 (toll-free)
www.americanbar.org/contactus (email form)

CaringInfo (National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization)
1-800-658-8898 (toll-free)
caringinfo@nhpco.org (email)

National Library of Medicine
www.medlineplus.gov, Search for: Advance Directives

National Cancer Institute
1-800-422-6237 (toll-free)
cancergovstaff@mail.nih.gov (email)

Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Paradigm (POLST)
info@polst.org (email)

info@prepareforyourcare.org (email)

Publication Date: July 2016
Page Last Updated: May 2, 2017