What is Five Wishes?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Five Wishes is a legal form published by an American nonprofit organization to help people prepare an advance medical directive to address what should happen if they become ill and are no longer able to make decisions for themselves. The Aging With Dignity organization introduced the first version in 1996 and has made several changes to the form to make it usable in as many states as possible as a binding legal document. People can obtain copies from this organization or through hospitals, hospice organizations, and similar groups.

An advance directive tells the doctor how much medical intervention to give the patient during his or her terminal illness.
An advance directive tells the doctor how much medical intervention to give the patient during his or her terminal illness.

This document contains five sections covering various aspects of end of life care. The first is the designation of a person to act as a health-care proxy in the event someone is incapacitated. The second discusses the kind of care the person wishes to receive, ranging from minimal comfort care to every lifesaving measure possible. Both of these parts of the Five Wishes document are legally binding, and it is important to make sure the form is recognized in a given jurisdiction.

A five wishes form includes information about when a patient wishes to be placed on a ventilator.
A five wishes form includes information about when a patient wishes to be placed on a ventilator.

The next three sections discuss spiritual and personal matters. The third section addresses the comfort needs of the patient, discussing the kind of comfort care she wishes to receive. The fourth covers how the patient wants to be treated by other people, and the fifth discusses things the patient wants friends and family to know. These can include details for a funeral or memorial along with personal notes to individual people.

Details for a memorial or funeral may be collected on a five wishes form.
Details for a memorial or funeral may be collected on a five wishes form.

The Five Wishes document acts as a living will detailing the patient's wishes about specific aspects of medical care, along with giving a person health-care power of attorney to make decisions. It also covers matters not normally discussed in the standard legal forms people use for advanced directives. When people use a Five Wishes form, they should check to see if their state recognizes the form. If it does not, they need to use the state's preferred legal document, although they can also prepare a Five Wishes to supplement it.

It is important to be aware that hospitals use a variety of terminology to discuss various aspects of end of life care, and it is important to be as specific as possible. Rather than just saying “no extraordinary measures,” for example, people should spell out what that means. A person might be willing to go on antibiotics to treat an infection, but not to go on a ventilator, for instance. The more detailed the document, the better health-care providers will be able to respect the wishes of the patient.

Those with terminal illnesses may communicate the information normally included on a Five Wishes form verbally with their children or other loved ones, but this is not legally binding.
Those with terminal illnesses may communicate the information normally included on a Five Wishes form verbally with their children or other loved ones, but this is not legally binding.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon328853

Does this apply even if you are a young person who was just in an accident or discovers they have cancer or does it apply strictly to seniors?

orangey03

@JackWhack – Only four states require that you have this living will notarized. I know it sounds scary, but as soon as someone signs the document, it is legally binding in most states.

However, there are things you can do to protect yourself from fraud. You can make copies of it and give them to your closest friends or family. You can also give one to your doctor so that he or she can keep it on file.

If you ever have to go to the hospital, be sure to bring another copy of it with you. Having several copies in so many different hands keeps other people from faking one.

I keep the original form in a lockbox at home, and I make copies whenever I think of someone else who should have a copy. I take no chances when it comes to something as serious as this.

JackWhack

I have some concerns about the Five Wishes living will. It's so easy to get a copy, so how do you keep someone else from filling out one for you with information that would benefit them and not you?

I know there are people who hate their spouses and would go to the extent of faking a living will for them. The vindictive spouse might write down that the other spouse didn't want measures taken to save his or her life, and this person might even write down that he or she wanted to be cremated, whether the person did or not.

What measures are in place to keep this from happening? Do you have to have a Five Wishes form notarized?

Kristee

@seag47 – You can get Five Wishes as a free download. There are several sites that offer this. Also, you can get a copy from a hospital, doctor, or lawyer, but it's so much easier to just get online and print one out.

seag47

This sounds like a great idea. I think that people of every age should fill out this form, because accidents can happen, and you never know when you might end up in a hospital, unable to speak for yourself.

Is the Five Wishes form free, or is there a fee to get a document? I'd like to get one as soon as possible.

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