Most of us spend considerable time planning for things like vacations or retirement but don't have much of a plan when it comes to our own health care at the end of life.

Advance care planning is a process of assisting individuals to understand, reflect upon and communicate future medical treatment preferences, including end-of-life care. Advance care planning is not just a process for any person diagnosed with cancer or life-threatening illnesses. It is a process for any adult.

Advance care plans are carefully thought-out directives that your loved ones and health care providers can rely on if there is ever a time that you are unable to make your own health care decisions. Without a plan, family members face the burden of trying to guess your wishes. That is why advance care planning is so important.

Advance care planning involves learning about the types of decisions that might need to be made, considering those decisions ahead of time, selecting a decision-maker (health care agent) and then letting your decision-maker, loved ones and your health care providers know about your wishes and decisions, often by putting them into an advance directive.

Advance directives allow you to spell out your decisions about end-of-life care ahead of time. Advance directives are legal documents that go into effect only if you are incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself. This could be the result of disease or severe injury — no matter how old you are. You may never face a medical situation where you are unable to speak for yourself and make your wishes known but having an advance directive may give you and those close to you some peace of mind.

There are two elements in an advance directive: a living will and a power of attorney for health care. Other documents can supplement your advance directive or stand alone. You choose which directives, depending on how you want decisions to be made.

A living will tells your health care providers whether you want death-delaying procedures used if you have a terminal condition and are unable to state your wishes. The health care power of attorney lets you choose someone to make health care decisions for you if you are no longer able to make those decisions.

Most people are unaware that they do not need an attorney to prepare an advance directive. These forms are available at no charge from your medical providers, local hospitals or from the Illinois State Medical Society at www.isms.org.

Anyone who would like assistance with advance care planning may contact:

  • Advocate BroMenn Medical Center Mission & Spiritual Care, 309-268-5499
  • Community Cancer Center chaplain or social worker, 309-451-8500
  • Compassion & Choices of McLean County, Jana Edge, 309-452-3021
  • OSF St. Joseph Medical Center Pastoral Care, 309-662-3311.

Candi Gray, a certified oncology social worker, is a licensed clinical social worker at the Community Cancer Center.