Planning Ahead - Family History and Advance Directives

Advance Directives

When together talking about health with your family, take the opportunity to talk about Advance Directives.

Advance directives are the legal documents - living wills, durable power of attorneys and health care proxies, do not resuscitate orders - which allow people to convey their decisions about any kind of serious medical decision that would be made when you are physically unable to provide consent at the time of treatment. Conversations that focus on your wishes and beliefs and why you are making them will relieve loved ones and health care providers of the need to guess what you would want.

Advance directives provide a way for patients to communicate their wishes to family, friends, and health care professionals and to avoid confusion later on, should they become unable to do so. By creating an advance directive, you are making your preferences about medical care known before you're faced with a serious injury or illness. This will spare your loved ones the stress of making decisions about your care while you are sick.

Anyone 18 years of age or older can prepare an advance directive.

It's all about talking… talking with your loved ones about your health care preferences; talking with your doctor about your options so that you can make informed decisions; and talking with your health care agent so your wishes are honored if you can not make decisions yourself. Talking before a crisis can help you and your loved ones prepare for difficult decisions that may arise at the end of life.

For more information, click on some of the links below. All are excellent sources of information on this important health topic.

Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Orders

A DNR order is a medical treatment order stating that CPR will not be attempted if your heart and/or breathing stops. Before a DNR order may be entered into your medical record, either you or another person (your legal guardian, health care power of attorney or surrogate decision maker) must consent to the DNR order. If a DNR order is entered into your medical record, appropriate medical treatment other than CPR will be given to you. (From the Illinois Department of Public Health)

Living Wills

A living will tells your health-care professional whether you want death-delaying procedures used if you have a terminal condition and are unable to state your wishes. A living will, unlike a health care power of attorney, only applies if you have a terminal condition. A terminal condition means an incurable and irreversible condition such that death is imminent and the application of any death delaying procedures serves only to prolong the dying process. Even if you sign a living will, food and water cannot be withdrawn if it would be the only cause of death.

You can use a standard living will form or write your own. You may write specific directions about the death-delaying procedures you do or do not want. It is your responsibility to tell your health-care professional if you have a living will if you are able to do so. You can cancel your living will at any time, either by telling someone or by canceling it in writing.

Medical Power of Attorney

The health care power of attorney lets you choose someone to make health-care decisions for you in the future, if you are no longer able to make these decisions for yourself. So long as you are able to make these decisions, you will have the power to do so. You may use a standard health care power of attorney form or write your own. You may give your agent specific directions about the health care you do or do not want.

The person you designate to make health-care decisions on your behalf has broad power. They would be required to follow any specific instructions you give regarding care you want provided or withheld. For example, you can say whether you want all life-sustaining treatments provided in all events; whether and when you want life-sustaining treatment ended; instructions regarding refusal of certain types of treatments on religious or other personal grounds; and instructions regarding anatomical gifts and disposal of remains. Unless you include time limits, the health care power of attorney will continue in effect from the time it is signed until your death. You can cancel your power of attorney at any time, either by telling someone or by canceling it in writing.


  • U.S. Surgeon General's Family History Initiative
  • Illinois Department of Public Health
  • National Cancer Institute
  • The Mayo Clinic

[ Back to Top ]

Family History

Many common conditions and diseases are inherited, so it is important that you have a full family history available if your doctor should ask for it.

Health care professionals have known for a long time that common diseases - heart disease, cancer, and diabetes - and even rare diseases - like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia - can run in families. If one generation of a family has high blood pressure, it is not unusual for the next generation to have similarly high blood pressure. Tracing the illnesses suffered by your parents, grandparents, and other blood relatives can help your doctor predict the disorders to which you may be at risk and take action to keep you and your family healthy.

Americans know that family history is important to health. A recent survey found that 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important. Yet, the same survey found that only one-third of Americans have ever tried to gather and write down their family's health history.

Click on the links below for more information.

  • Overview of the Family History Initiative
    An overview of the Family History initiative, frequently asked questions, and tools to help you record your family history. From the US Department of Health and Human Services (HSS).

  • Why having a family history is important
    Frequently asked questions about how to put together your family's medical history. From the Mayo Clinic.

  • Resources and Tools
    Fact sheets, disease-specific links, tools, guidelines, and more. From the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).


  • U.S. Surgeon General's Family History Initiative
  • National Cancer Institute
  • The Mayo Clinic

[ Back to Top ]

Call 877-RES-INFO for Nurse Advice, Doctor Referrals or Class Registration Monday - Friday 8 am to 8 pm • Saturday 8am to 12pm

Special Features

  • We need your voice!

    Our legislators are tackling issues that impact on our ability to live our mission. Learn more »