Advanced directive(s) is an umbrella term describing the process and documents wherein you express what you would like done to you by doctors and other health care providers should you become temporarily or permanently unable to express those wishes. The phrase “advanced directive” is often used quite loosely. It’s the most common way to describe this general topic, process, and the stack of associated documents.

Your health care proxy is the person you entrust to make healthcare decisions for you should you be unable to do so. The process of assigning this role is simple and straightforward and does not require an attorney, but it should involve (1) some very serious thought as to who you pick and (2) a frank and open discussion with that person as to what your preferences are. Ideally, you should have an alternate proxy as well.

To assign a health care proxy, there are simple forms available online. In most cases, you can also designate a healthcare proxy right in your doctor’s office, with forms that are widely available and typically require only a witness.

Power of attorney is a legal document that allows a person you appoint to act in your place for financial purposes if and when you ever become incapacitated. While your healthcare proxy will make medical decisions, your power of attorney will make financial decisions.

An important note about a power of attorney: This role is essentially legalized identity transfer. All official entities of the state and commerce recognize your power of attorney as you for all intents and purposes. It’s important to be incredibly careful who you choose.

A living will is a document that describes what specific actions you’d like taken in various circumstances should you become incapacitated. It’s important to note that a living will is no substitute for a health care proxy, but rather a “companion document” that provides more specificity for that person and a doctor, and should reinforce the wishes you’ve conveyed to them in actual discussions.

While it’s important to have a living will, it’s equally important to understand some of the limitations — mainly that they can foster misconceptions about the way medical emergencies play out in actuality. No two medical circumstances are exactly alike, and rarely does one encounter a situation in which a rigid and formulaic document can provide airtight advice on how to proceed in a way that is “on point.” The bottom line: You need a health proxy whose decision can be informed by a living will, but it’s impossible to plan for every eventuality.

A DNR order is a very specific kind of advanced directive which speaks to what you’d like done in the event of an “arrest” (such as if your heart stops beating or you stop breathing). In these instances, without aggressive treatment, you would perish immediately, and attempted resuscitation often involves medical equipment things like paddles, defibrillators, and ventilators.

DNR orders are typically used in health care facilities like hospitals and nursing homes because medical staff and equipment is readily available. But they’re important to have in every setting, should something ever happen outside of the house and paramedics or other medical assistance is called.

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