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Commonly held myths about end-of-life issues

Some people don't have a health care power of attorney or living will because they don't realize how important these documents are.

Focus on Healthy Living
ISSUE #5 OF 7 IN AN E-MAIL SERIES
Harvard Medical School

Commonly held myths about end-of-life issues

Some people don’t have a health care power of attorney or living will because they don’t realize how important these documents are. Others worry that such documents mean they are signing their lives away. Not so.

Living Wills

Living wills and health care proxies — documents known as advance care directives — give you a voice in decisions about your medical care at the end of life. Without these documents, choices may be left up to a doctor or a judge — someone who does not know your values, beliefs, or preferences. This Special Health Report, Advance Care Planning: A guide to advance directives, living wills, and other strategies for communicating health care preferences, will help you plan ahead and create legal documents to guide decision makers at this important time.

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These powerful documents make sure that you get the treatment you would want for yourself if you couldn’t communicate your wishes. Here are a few myths that shouldn’t get in the way of creating a health care power of attorney or living will:

Myth: More care is always better.

Truth: Not necessarily. Sometimes more care prolongs the dying process without respect for quality of life or comfort. It’s important to know what interventions are truly important. It’s often impossible to know that in advance. That’s where the advice of a healthcare team is invaluable.

Myth: Refusing life support invalidates your life insurance, because you are committing suicide.

Truth: Refusing life support does not mean that you are committing suicide. Instead, the underlying medical problem is considered to be the cause of death.

Myth: If medical treatment is started, it cannot be stopped.

Truth: Not starting a medical treatment and stopping a treatment are the same in the eyes of the law. So you or your health care agent can approve a treatment for a trial period that you think may be helpful without fear that you can’t change your mind later. However, be aware that stopping treatment can be more emotionally difficult than not starting it in the first place.

Myth: If you refuse life-extending treatments, you’re refusing all treatments.

Truth: No matter what treatments you refuse, you should still expect to receive any other care you need or want — especially the pain and symptom management sometimes called intensive comfort care.

Myth: Stopping or refusing artificial nutrition and hydration causes pain for someone who is dying.

Truth: Unlike keeping food or water from a healthy person, for someone who is dying, declining artificial nutrition or intravenous hydration does not cause pain.

For more on setting goals for end-of-life care and avoiding common pitfalls, buy Advance Care Planning, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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Advance Care Planning

Featured content:

7 key measures to ensure that your wishes will be honored
What to consider before including a DNR
5 common (and dangerous) myths about end-of-life issues
The role of POLST (Physician orders for life-sustaining treatment
10 tips for being a more effective health care agent
•  … and more!

Click here to read more »

Harvard Medical School offers special reports on over 60 health topics.
Visit our website at http://www.health.harvard.edu to find reports of interest to you and your family.

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