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Living Wills

The term ‘living will’ or ‘advance directive’ (or ‘health care directive’, or even ‘physician’s directive’) is often heard on television programmes, read in books, or mentioned by professionals, but what is it? What does it really mean? And is it something you should consider?

A living will is similar to a standard will, in that a person’s wishes can be catalogued within it to be acted upon when a certain set of circumstances arises. With a standard will, that circumstance is death. In a living will, as the name suggests, it is not death which means that the items set out within it are actioned, but the kind of life in which you would be permanently unconscious after an accident, for example, or when you have a terminal disease and fall into an end of life coma from which it is unlikely you would awaken.

As medical advances take place, the likelihood of being able to stay alive through the use of machines is more and more commonplace, but if this is something you are sure you do not want, you can instruct the medical professionals – and inform your family – through your living will that you wish not to have any medical intervention. That is, you would like to die naturally, and no special or heroic measures should be used to keep you alive. Alternatively, the living will can set out what medications and techniques you do and don’t want used.

Living wills are used when the patient cannot speak for themselves and in this respect they can be essential for ensuring that nothing happens to someone that they would never have wanted. This type of will lays out everything so that no one can misunderstand, or act in ways that aren’t in the patient’s best interests.

It may sound as though having a living will could be a dangerous thing – what if you had an accident, and were unconscious and therefore couldn’t speak for yourself? Would the will automatically come into effect? There’s no need to worry about this – the living will would only come into effect once you were in a permanent vegetative state, which would be certified by medical professionals. Until that time, you would be treated as normal.

If you do choose to write a living will (which can exist side by side with a standard will), then it is essential that it is known about, otherwise it cannot be actioned; tell your family, your friends, even your doctor. Make sure that the will can be found in the event of anything happening. Ensure that it is drawn up by a professional as well, for complete peace of mind. It can be a traumatic and confusing time for family, and there must be no doubt about what the patient’s wishes are, even if the family does not agree with them.

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