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Who will make your medical and legal decisions if you can’t?

Elderly man looking at an iPad while female reads a magazine

In life we face a lot of ‘what if’s’.

What if we paint the wall Vivid White instead of Natural White?

In all likelihood, no one will notice. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

What if the car won’t start? Call RAC.

What if one of us gets sick?

Hmmm, that’s a bit trickier to deal with. What if you become sick and your partner or a family member has to take over all the financial and legal decisions? This is a topic that makes most of us a bit uncomfortable and is one we don’t often talk about.

After all, facing your own mortality is always confronting, and besides, isn’t 70 the new 50?

However, if the unthinkable happens and suddenly you are deemed legally incapable of making your own decisions, what then?

A Will is the first essential step, but then, only 50% of adult Australians have a Will.  Although important, a Will only deals with your estate once you have passed away.

Consider this scenario… your legal capacity is diminished due to a diagnosis of dementia, yet you still have many years left to live. How would you feel if you were deemed unable to decide how you want to live?

With dementia on the rise, there is an ever-increasing number of people who are losing the legal capacity to make their own health care and financial decisions. Many have nothing formal in place to protect them or let people know their wishes.

A dementia diagnosis doesn’t mean you automatically lose your legal capacity but it does mean you have to plan for future decisions while you can.

This week is National Palliative Care Week and a good opportunity to think about planning ahead.

What does it mean to plan ahead? Dr Sean Maher, Honorary Medical Director for Alzheimer’s WA recommends thinking about who will make decisions when you are no longer able, and what treatments you do or don’t want at the end of your life.

Practical legal issues are best addressed early, while you still have legal capacity to do so. This ensures your wishes are known and able to be respected. Apart from having a Will, consider whether you should establish an Enduring Power of Attorney, an Advance Health Directive, an Enduring Power of Guardianship and an Advance Care Plan.

An Advance Health Directive, also called a Living Will, records your decisions and plans about your future health care. The document comes into effect only when you are legally considered unable to make your own decisions.

It is also advisable to appoint a person or persons who are empowered to make lifestyle and health care decisions on your behalf, when you are no longer able to, through an Enduring Power of Guardianship.

In Western Australia, you can complete both an Advance Health Directive and an Enduring Power of Guardianship. If the Advance Health Directive doesn’t apply in a certain situation, the Enduring Power of Guardianship will take over.

Additionally, you can complete an Advance Care Plan which is a record of your personal wishes which are not covered in the other formal documents.

The most important thing to do is to talk to your loved ones and discuss what you would want to happen if one of you was no longer able to make your own decisions.

Would you want to stay at home for as long as possible, or go into an aged care facility?

Stay together, or be separated?

What kind of treatment would you want, or not want, if treatment was required to prolong your life?

And because it is inevitable… would you prefer to die at home, if possible?

One in four of us will be diagnosed with dementia once we are over the age of 85. With that hefty statistic in mind, perhaps we need to start the conversation now while we are still able to do so. 

For help with a diagnosis of dementia please contact Alzheimer’s WA on 1300 66 77 88.

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