What is an advance directive? What is a living will? How do you talk to your parent about their long-term care? Keep reading to find out more.

Updated December14, 2022

What Is An Advance Directive? Do Your Parents Need One?

Preparing for your aging parent’s end-of-life care or critical medical decisions is among the most challenging things you can do. While you can’t plan for everything, an advance directive (also known as a living will) can ease some burdens. But what is an advance directive?

An advance directive is the primary legal record for protecting a person’s healthcare wishes if they lose the ability to speak or make decisions for themselves.

These documents are essential for several reasons, especially if your parent becomes incapacitated or loses their ability to communicate due to advanced dementia, stroke, or another condition.

These forms permit medical providers and the designated agent to make decisions that align with your parent’s wishes. In addition, it gives you the authority to speak for your parent, which prevents confusion or disagreements over their care.

Yet, despite the crucial role advance directives play in peoples’ future wellbeing and quality of life, only one in three adults have completed one.

You never know when or if an illness or injury will occur. Establishing an advance directive will keep your family on the same page if something happens. Not only that, but it can provide much-needed peace of mind for everyone involved in your parent’s care.

What Is The Purpose Of An Advance Directive?

“Advance directive” is an umbrella term for various documents that protect your parent’s best interests if they lose their ability to communicate, such as:

  • Living wills
  • Health care declarations
  • A medical power of attorney
  • A durable power of attorney
  • Patient advocate designations

All of these documents serve the same purpose. First, they help your loved one stipulate the care they do or don’t want. For example, they can decide for or against comfort care, feeding tubes, or other artificial life-prolonging care.

Most states let terminally ill or permanently incapacitated individuals define these forms of care. This process simplifies things for families and healthcare providers legally obliged to fulfill their patients’ preferences or find a provider who will.

Secondly, they give you (or another family member) the power to make medical decisions for your parent — including wishes not outlined in the form. However, you may need additional documents to ensure their preferences are followed depending on the state your parent lives.

For example, a living will specifies your parent’s wishes but doesn’t grant anyone authority to make medical decisions or follow your loved one’s preferences. On the other hand, medical power of attorney can designate you to act on your parent’s behalf and make other medical decisions such as:

  • Hiring or firing healthcare providers
  • Long-term care or hospitalizations
  • Complete medical record access
  • Agreeing to or denying medical care or treatment options concerning your parent’s physical or mental health.

Still, these documents don’t specify the exact types of care your loved one desires. This risks confusion and debate between medical providers and family members, regardless of what your parent wants.

Advance directive - Senior parents and their adult daughter discussing an advance directive - MeetCaregivers
Talking to your parents about setting up an advance directive early on will give you more time to create an air-tight plan.

How To Talk To Your Parents About An Advance Directive

No one enjoys discussing their mortality, which makes talking to your parent about an advance directive particularly difficult. The following tips may not make the conversation less uncomfortable. Still, they can help you work through this challenging talk more effectively.

Take Things Slow

Your parent may have finalized their advance directive and preferences, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to talk to you about end-of-life planning. Some topics are tough to discuss, so when things get too challenging, step back and regroup when ready to continue.

It could take several conversations over weeks or even months. But, however long it takes, don’t rush: this conversation requires patience and time.

Highlight The Benefits

There may be contention among other family members over your parent’s care. So before tensions escalate, let your family know that it’s better to solve these disagreements while your parent is alive, aware, and can share their wishes independently.

Of course, it’s not always easy. But communicating clearly and calmly will minimize family disputes and potentially ease your grief if your parent can no longer make decisions.

Make Sure Your Parent Feels Heard

A large part of your conversation will involve your parent’s preferences, wishes, and concerns. Make sure to listen patiently and attentively, take notes, and ask questions to promote an open and honest conversation.

Of course, it’s not always easy. But communicating clearly and calmly will minimize family disputes and potentially ease your grief if your parent can no longer make decisions.

Talk To Other Relatives About Creating An Advance Directive

Your parent may feel singled out if other older family members could benefit from an advance directive. However, creating these documents together could help your parent feel more at ease and promote a healthier, more effective discussion.

Hire Professional Help

Depending on your family, hiring a professional to create an advance directive is the best decision. This person could be a clergy member, lawyer, family counselor, or someone familiar with these documents and the process.

How To Designate An Agent In An Advance Directive

Advance directive - Adult daughter and elderly mother smiling at each other - MeetCaregivers
If you have a sibling or someone whose personality is better suited to this role, consider asking for their help.

Choosing the right person to act on your parent’s behalf is critical. Your parent should select somebody who is:

  • Trustworthy
  • Familiar with their preferences
  • Good at communicating with others
  • Located close to them or easy to contact
  • Ready and able to discuss death and dying with your parent
  • Strong enough to follow your parent’s wishes, even when facing criticism.

It’s also a good idea to name a “backup” agent. While these individuals can’t make decisions or hold any power, they can step up in situations where the original agent can’t perform their duties.

If your parent doesn’t know anyone they can name, they should still create an advance directive. Although waiving an agent isn’t the best option, medical providers would still be required by law to follow your loved one’s preferences.

Where To File An Advance Directive

When your parent completes their advance directive, encourage them to store it in a secure, easily accessible place. In addition, they should also provide copies to:

  • The designated agent
  • Trusted relatives (or a close friend)
  • Healthcare facilities responsible for your parent’s treatment
  • Their lawyer and doctors (ask that they include the document in your parent’s medical records).

It’s also a good idea to save a note in your parent’s wallet indicating the existence of an advance health care directive and the agent’s contact information.

MeetCaregivers Can Help

You can’t plan for everything, but it helps to create an advance directive for your parent. This document, as well as a power of attorney or a living will, can support your parent’s dignity and wishes during end-of-life care.

If your parent needs extra assistance around the house, we can help. Call 1 (888) 541-1136 or Find A Caregiver to get started today.

Visit our Blog for more resources for family caregivers and seniors.

  • “A Guide to Advance Health Care Directives.”,
  • “Advance Directives and Living Wills: Bringing Up Sensitive Topics.” Advance Directives and Living Wills: Bringing Up Sensitive Topics – Family Caregiver Alliance,

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