Life happens fast – sometimes this can result in you or a loved one facing a terminal illness or needing unexpected life-saving care. According to an AARP study, only about one-third of adults have a plan in place that expresses their wishes for end-of-life care.

Advance care planning is a process that helps us plan for life’s “what if” moments. This process gives individuals and their caregivers the opportunity to plan for future healthcare decisions should they be unable to make their own decisions or speak for themselves.

Whether you’re facing an acute illness, terminal diagnosis or an unexpected accident, advance care planning can help alleviate the burden on you and your loved ones while also ensuring you receive care that is consistent with your beliefs, values, wishes and goals.

What are the benefits of advance care planning?

Advance care planning gives individuals and their loved ones peace of mind during moments of unforeseen illness or injury. Creating a plan ahead of time can help improve your quality of life during a healthcare crisis and also alleviates the worry of loved ones wondering if they “did the right thing” on your behalf.

In addition to helping individuals and their families, advance care planning also ensures your healthcare teams knows your preferences and whether you would like to receive life-sustaining measures, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), ventilator use or comfort care.

Advance care planning is an important part of disease self-management for many older Americans currently living with one or more chronic conditions. While many people living with a chronic disease are able to experience a high quality of life, these diseases are also typically accompanied by periods of gradual decline.

Taking the time to talk through possible life-altering situations with your loved ones gives you the opportunity to express your wishes and ensure your voice is heard so that your healthcare preferences are honored when it matters most.

What are advance directives?

While it’s important to talk about your wishes, it’s even more important to document them. Research shows that people who document their preferences by using advance directives are more likely to get the care they prefer at the end of life than people who do not.

Advance directives are a group of legal documents that express an individual’s healthcare choices should they become unable to communicate their own decisions, and they can be updated at any time should their beliefs or viewpoints change. Examples of advance directives include a medical power of attorney, living will or directive to a physician.  

One of the most important elements of an advance directive is naming a trusted friend or family member as a medical power of attorney, giving them healthcare decision making rights. Choosing someone you trust as your healthcare proxy–and whom you have had multiple discussions with regarding your beliefs, wants and goals–is one of the best ways to ensure your healthcare choices are honored in times of unforeseen medical crises.

A living will is another important document that allows you to outline your healthcare preferences in specific situations. For some people, staying alive as long as medically possible is important to them, and therefore they might elect aggressive treatment should they be faced with a life-threatening situation. Others may choose to receive comfort care instead.

When should I start advance care planning?

It’s common to ignore the possibility of serious disease, life-threatening trauma or death until a crisis occurs. However, these circumstances bring pain and trauma not only to the person afflicted, but to their loved ones as well.

None of us know what tomorrow may bring, so it’s smart to start planning for the future now. Having a plan in place and beginning these discussions with your loved ones can help you prepare for a potential life-threatening event and greatly reduce the burden it may bring. 

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