What It Means

Advance directive: Describes two kinds of legal documents, living wills and medical powers of attorney. These are papers which allow a person to give instructions about future medical care in case he or she becomes unable to participate in medical decisions because of serious illness or incapacity. Each state regulates the use of advance directives differently.

Living will: A type of advance directive in which an individual documents her or his wishes about medical treatment should he or she be at the end of life and unable to communicate. It may also be called a directive to physicians, health care declaration, or medical directive. A living will guides family members and doctors in deciding how aggressively to use medical treatments to delay death.

Medical power of attorney: Allows an individual to appoint someone else to make decisions about his or her medical care if he or she is unable to communicate. It may also be called a health care proxy, durable power of attorney for health care, or appointment of a health care agent. The person appointed may be called a health care agent, surrogate, attorney-in-fact or proxy.

Surrogate decision-making: Surrogate decision-making laws allow an individual or group of individuals (usually family members) to make decisions about medical treatments for a patient who has lost decision-making capacity and did not prepare an advance directive. In some states, a social service agency, such as Jewish Family Services, can be appointed surrogates or guardians.

Glossary adapted from material from the Partnership For Caring.

Reporting on caregiving issues made possible by the Grotta Foundation for Senior Care.