As a 21-year-old acting as attorney-in-fact for my 76-year-old grandmother, I faced one of the hardest decisions I would ever have to make. My grandmother had a severe stroke and, without significant medical intervention, she would not survive more than a few hours. As emergency room doctor explained all of the possible interventions to my sister and me, I felt at once pained and grateful. I felt grateful for the fact that my grandmother had on numerous occasions expressed her end-of-life wishes to me and had put those wishes in writing. I felt pained knowing that I was about to say a final good-bye to the person who raised me. I elected only comfort measures for my grandmother and she died peacefully a few hours later.

As a medical social worker and elder law attorney, I have seen countless families grapple with end of life decisions. Executing an advance health care directive can be an invaluable gift to loved ones. Advance directives are instructions about your future medical care in the event you are unable to express your wishes. Advance directives are important because they provide the best possible assurance that decisions regarding your future health care will reflect your wishes.

In Washington, there are three types of advance directives: (1) an advance health care directive, (2) a durable power of attorney for health care, and (3) the POLST form. An advance health care directive, sometimes known as a “living will,” is a document that provides instruction concerning treatment options including but not limited to tube feeding, IV fluids, CPR and pain medication. A durable power of attorney for health care is a document that appoints someone to make health care decisions for you if you are no longer able to make those decisions for yourself. A POLST (Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) form is document signed by both the patient and the physician and serves as a physician’s order directing treatment for patients at or nearing the end of life. Your attorney can provide assistance with the preparation and execution of an advance health care directive and durable power of attorney for health care. For information about the POLST form, consult with your physician.

I am so fortunate that my grandmother discussed her wishes with me and executed advance directives. It is one of the greatest gifts she ever gave me.