You could be driving to work, reaching into the dairy case for a quart of milk or strolling to the mailbox when an accident, stroke or heart attack happens, leaving you incapacitated and unable to communicate.
In the end, just four pieces of paper will ensure that your final wishes concerning medical treatment, finances and what happens to your cherished belongings are followed.
The best time to make sure you have those documents a health care power-of-attorney, living will, financial power-of-attorney and a will is now, elder law attorney Kevin R. Grebas told people who gathered at Blue Mountain Health System's Lehighton conference center to learn more about preparing for end-of-life decisions.
Grebas, who works with Marshall, Parker & Associates, LLC, spoke as part of Blue Mountain Health System's Community Education lecture series. After his presentation, BMHS case managers Mary Salmon and Stefanie Markley helped people fill out advance directive forms.
Grebas explained the four documents, and urged people to talk with family members about their end-of-life wishes, values, preferences and beliefs.
"A living will allows you to leave instructions for someone when you become incapacitated," he said. "A health care power-of-attorney is another important document that allows you to delegate medical decisions to someone, even if you're not necessarily terminally ill, but you need someone to make medical decisions for you."
Living wills provide instructions for end-of-life care and become operative when given to the attending physician and when that physician determines that the person is incompetent and has an end-stage medical condition or is permanently unconscious.
A health care power-of-attorney also becomes operative under the same conditions.
Grebas advised having copies of all four documents on file with one's doctor, close relatives and in one's wallet.
Default decision-making, Grebas said, is triggered when someone lacks a health care power-of-attorney or a living will in place when the need arises. If that happens, state law "will tell you who your decision-makers will be," he said.
The state typically appoints the spouse or the adult children of the affected person. But those adult children cannot be the spouse's children. If the spouse of the affected person's adult children cannot be appointed, the state would name a parent, an adult sibling, an adult grandchild or an adult who knows the affected person's values and preferences, in that order.
Once one has discussed their wishes with family members and has drafted and signed the documents, one should review and update them every 10 years, or in the event of a divorce, a death in the family, a diagnosis of serious illness or if they experience a decline in mental or physical health.
Living will forms can be downloaded free of charge at http://www.caringinfo.org/UserFiles/File/Pennsylvania.pdf.