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What Documents Will You Need to Make Your Wishes Known?

To have the best chance of living your last months and weeks as you envision, you need to plan ahead and make sure people know your wishes. This is true for everyone, whether you are healthy, recovering from a serious illness, or in hospice care. Your loved ones and doctors will appreciate it, too, because they'll know they are following your wishes.

Advance Directives

A number of legal healthcare documents have been created so that you can specify what you would like. These documents are called advance directives, because they specify, in advance, what you envision. There are several versions of advance directives, but the most common include

Living will

A living will provides instructions, if you are unable to speak for yourself, to your loved ones and physicians regarding what type of treatment you would or would not like, such as the use of feeding tubes, ventilators (breathing machines), and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. In most states, you will be resuscitated and placed on a ventilator unless you put it in writing that you don't want to be. Make your loved ones and doctors aware of your wishes and post them near your bedside.

Medical power of attorney or healthcare proxy (agent)

This document names someone who will make healthcare decisions if you are unable to.

Things to Consider

Do you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops? Do you want a mechanical ventilator (breathing machine) if you are no longer able to breathe on your own? Under what circumstances would you not want resuscitation? These decisions and others are yours to make, but you need to discuss them with your doctors, put them in writing, and let your loved ones know your wishes.


Be aware that laws and options for advance directives vary by state. Learn about the laws for the state or states in which you live by visiting Caring Connections.

You also can download additional advance directive resources from the group Compassion & Choices.

Five Wishes

Because these advance directives often don't adequately cover everything, other documents have been developed, including the Five Wishes. Referred to as "the living will with a heart and soul," it was developed by the not-for-profit organization Aging with Dignity to cover legal end-of-life healthcare issues and address issues of comfort, spirituality, and final wishes. The document is legal in 40 states. The Five Wishes cover

  • which person you want to make healthcare decisions for you when you can't make them
  • the kind of medical treatment you want or don't want
  • how comfortable you want to be
  • how you want people to treat you
  • what you want your loved ones to know.

For more information about the Five Wishes, visit Aging with Dignity.

It’s important to document your wishes is in the event that you are unable to convey them yourself. These legal documents should accompany your plan to live well, which you will develop with your care team.