Taking Charge of Important Medical Decisions and Learning More about a Health Care Proxy

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As we grow up, one of the things we value most in life is our autonomy—and that generally doesn’t change as we get older. In fact, older adults are committed to being independent and continuing to make their own decisions more than ever. And since few decisions are as important as one’s medical treatment, many of them choose to complete a health care proxy.

What Is a Health Care Proxy?

A health care proxy is a legal document where one person (sometimes called the “primary individual” or “patient”) names another (usually referred to as the “agent”) to make medical decisions for them if they are unable to do so. The decisions can be noted in advance, either in the proxy document itself or in another health care document such as an advance directive.

Many people think that having a health care proxy means turning over important medical decisions to someone else, but that’s not true. Your representative is there to carry out decisions made in advance by you. When the health care proxy goes into effect, you can continue to direct your medical treatment as you’ve always done, until such a time where you’re declared legally incompetent or similar. Please note that an event like this declaration may never happen; it’s just one potential triggering event for your agent to begin acting on your behalf.

Who Can Make a Health Care Proxy?

Generally, anyone over the age of eighteen who has not been declared legally incompetent can complete a health care proxy. You must also be able to communicate your health care wishes clearly. This doesn’t mean that you need to be able to write them down; you can still have a proxy if you are legally blind, for instance, or have another disability. As long as you have a way to make your wishes known (through speech, text, sign language, or other means), you can have a health care proxy.

Who Can Be Your Health Care Proxy Agent?

In most jurisdictions, there is a lot of flexibility over who can be your health care proxy agent. Some places have rules about who can’t be, such as your doctor. The most important thing to remember is that an agent should be over eighteen, of sound mind, and someone you trust to follow through with your wishes. Make sure that your agent shares your health care goals, values, and vision for the future.1 They should also be aware of the responsibilities that may be placed on them if they ever have to act as your agent and be comfortable with performing those duties. Finally, it’s a good idea to appoint an alternate agent (or more than one) using the same criteria as above.

Do I Need a Health Care Proxy?

While there is no law saying you must make a health care proxy, it’s one of the chief things you can do to make autonomous medical decisions. With a proxy, you’re simply making the decisions in advance (would you ever want a feeding tube? How do you feel about artificial life support?), and naming an advocate for them. In most cases, a proxy isn’t permanent; if you’re only temporarily unable to make medical decisions, the power to do so reverts back to you when the temporary condition passes. You can change agents at your will as well. If you feel that the person you originally named is no longer the best advocate for you, you can name a different person to be your agent.

Learn More about Health Care Proxies

The laws surrounding health care proxies can differ by state, so it’s important to check what the rules are where you live.2 Furthermore, proxies completed in one state may not be recognized by another unless the proxy is changed or re-written to meet that state’s criteria. Regardless, if you want more control over your healthcare decisions, you should strongly consider having a health care proxy.

If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. “Choosing Your Health Care Agent,” http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/choosing-health-care-agent-29939.html
  2. “Health Care Law and Info for California,” November 19, 2015,” https://www.legalconsumer.com/healthcare/?ST=CA
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