Healthcare Documents You Need In Place Right Now

We know the statistics: women are more likely than men to be single at the end of their lives. This is not a bad thing—who doesn’t like control of the remote?—but it can be scary. A woman I know, an intelligent retiree with many friends, is divorced and lives alone. Her family members all live in other states. She has saved up an adequate nest egg for her retirement, but because she is on her own she is also aware she doesn’t have a job anymore or the safety net of a spouse or kids, she sometimes gets scared. “What if I end up a bag lady?” sounds funny when she says it, but she’s scared. Even more than that, though, with a family history of dementia, she is terrified of slipping into Alzheimer’s with no one there to notice and or to help.   

As a financial planner, I can help ensure her financial situation is solid and in good hands. But under normal circumstances, I cannot disclose anything about her to anyone else. So even if I were to notice what I think may be signs of dementia, I can’t share my concerns with her family or doctors. 

This is where a document called a diminishing capacity letter can give someone great peace of mind. It gives financial advisors like me a list of people I can contact if I think I notice signs that one of my clients might be declining. It doesn’t violate their privacy; rather, it allows me to reach out to the people they want to have alerted with my concerns, when I would otherwise have to be silent. Tip: Add your doctor to the list so that your professionals can alert your physician that you might need a checkup. (For related reading, see: Is Your Client Hiding Their Alzheimer's?)

How to Prepare for Compromised Health

This is just one of several incredibly helpful documents that you should create today to communicate your wishes so that loved ones and doctors can give you the help you want, when you want it. Here are some more:

  • The Five Wishes: This is not a legal document per se. This pamphlet is a good place to start because it walks you through some of the decisions you need to make in order to draft the rest of the documents mentioned here, and it can help you provide nuance. It is a valid document in all 50 states if attached to a living will
  • Durable power of attorney for healthcare: This is the gold standard of healthcare documents. It is a legal document that names who you will entrust to make medical and healthcare decisions on your behalf. If you already have one that is gathering dust in a drawer, pull it out to make sure it still reflects your wishes and includes HIPAA language (the legalese that allows medical professionals to share your medical situation with authorized parties).
  • Living will: Everyone older than age 18 should—at the very least—have a living will in place. Do you shudder at the thought of being kept on life support indefinitely, or at the thought of not being kept on it as long as possible? This document outlines what type of treatment you wish to receive in case you are incapacitated. The key, as the name implies, is that this document needs to be completed in advance, while you are still in complete command of your faculties. It’s free, takes 10‒20 minutes to complete and does not require a lawyer or notary. Every state has one, you can find the right one for your state here.
  • DNR/DNI Order: The Do Not Resuscitate is related to the living will, and spells out circumstances in which you do not wish to be resuscitated. You may not think you have an opinion on this, but when you take the time to consider it, you’ll probably realize that you actually do have preferences. Let them be known. Medical professionals know to look for these on your fridge.
  • Organ donor registry: Becoming an organ, eye and tissue donor truly shares life with others but it’s not enough to stick that little pink dot on your driver’s license. You need to register your wishes with www.organdonor.gov.
  • Ethical wills and legacy documents: These documents allow you to pass on wisdom and life lessons to your loved ones, or even simply tell them you love them. It’s something that people want to do but rarely take the time. Perhaps you don’t know where to start, but this site can help

No one wants to think of the worst happening, but it’s an act of love for your family to ensure you are prepared in case something bad happens. When bad things happen, you may have to rely on a document to communicate for you. If you are incapacitated, the above documents should be in place to say who is authorized to speak on your behalf about the kind of care you do or do not want. It’s an unexpected and incredible kindness to your family members to have these in place. (For related reading, see: Estate Planning: Will Substitutes.)