The world has shared the agony of Nelson Mandela’s family members as they struggle with the difficult choices that accompany the end of life. Any decision they make will come under the public spotlight, and absent written instructions, the choice is theirs to make. Although not much is known about Mandela’s condition, the media is already speculating about how his family will handle the decisions regarding his care and the possible withdrawal of life support.

The Mandela family struggle highlights the need for everyone to prepare a living will and to designate an agent to handle medical decisions in the event they become incapacitated — and not to wait until it is too late to have them done. Anyone age 18 or older should have an Advanced Care Plan, a document that contains living will provisions and a health care agent designation form.

Choosing an agent for health care decisions

The health care agent that you designate will have the power to make healthcare decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself. You may — and should — designate a backup choice as well, in the event the person you designate is unable or unwilling to act on your behalf. Your agent will be given the power to:

  • Choose your hospital and other medical providers
  • Decide whether you will be cared for in the hospital, a nursing home, in a hospice program or at your residence
  • Determine what medical procedures will be in your best interests

In this document, you may provide your agent with guidance as to what you would choose for yourself if you could under the circumstances.

Decisions you make in your living will

A living will is used to specify what kind of treatment you do or do not want to be subjected to when you are no longer able to make medical decisions for yourself or communicate them to others. These include:

  • Whether or not you wish to be provided with medicine, nutrition and fluids that will extend your life in the event you have a terminal condition or are in a persistent vegetative state
  • Whether or not you wish to receive pain medication that is addictive
  • Restrictions on your health care as dictated by your religion or other personal beliefs

If you change your mind

There is no risk involved in creating an Advanced Directive — you can change or revoke this document at any time if you are still competent. However, without it, you may be robbed of the ability to choose the means and method of your own final care and manner of death.

Interested in planning for a time when you can no longer be with the one you love? Discuss your options with an estate planning lawyer.