Senior Viewpoint: How to Choose a Healthcare Proxy

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It may seem unthinkable to many of us that a day might come when we are unable to speak for ourselves. Yet according to theconversationproject.org, “half of all people over 65 admitted to a hospital need help from someone else.” As the pandemic and unexpected accidents have shown us, even healthy people may suddenly need someone else to speak for them and help make health care decisions.

A healthcare proxy, also known as surrogate decision-maker, power of attorney for healthcare, or healthcare agent, is able to speak with all of your healthcare team members and read your medical records. This person would apply what they know about your health care preferences to make decisions about tests, procedures, and treatments if you became too unwell to make those decisions yourself, such as in the case of stroke, dementia, or being knocked unconscious.

Parents and legal guardians are automatically healthcare proxies for those under eighteen in their care. If you’re over eighteen and don’t want the legal system to choose a healthcare proxy for you, you need to designate one. This is particularly crucial if you have a chronic illness, are diagnosed with a serious disease, or are going on a big trip.

In Michigan, only one person can act as your healthcare proxy, and must be over eighteen. Who would be best for this important role?

Your healthcare proxy might need to make tough, quick decisions on your behalf, including on procedures, treatments, or even life support. Health needs sometimes shift rapidly, so this should be someone who could understand your values and wishes in any situation, and will carry them out even if different from their own preferences.

Your healthcare proxy will also need to ask questions of your doctors and other healthcare helpers to get a clear grasp of your situation. They may also need to advocate strongly on your behalf to get the right care for you-—with health professionals and also with people close to you who may not agree with the proxy’s decisions. Is the person you’re considering comfortable enough to do so?

It’s helpful to also designate a secondary healthcare proxy. This person would act on your behalf if your primary choice became unable or unwilling to take this role. If you named your spouse as your proxy, and later are in proceedings for divorce, legal separation, or annulment, this designation would be suspended, and your secondary choice would become your healthcare proxy.

“Sometimes a spouse, adult child, sibling, or other family member may not be the best choice to follow your wishes. Your proxy doesn’t need to be someone local; the person you choose can act as your proxy and make choices for you over the phone,” explain the experts at theconversationproject.org.

If your proxy is a trusted friend, neighbor, member of your faith community, or other non-family member, family members may have questions.

So be sure to identify your proxy and the reason for this choice to them before a healthcare emergency arises. For example, you might explain that you want them to be able to focus fully on your time together and/or be moral support for you rather than have to deal with health care decisions that could be stressful.

You’ll also need to make sure your potential healthcare proxy understands all of the responsibilities involved (The Conversation Project’s downloadable Guide to Being a Healthcare Proxy can help flesh this out), and is willing to take these on. Listen to their responses, answer any questions they may have, and let them know it’s all right if they decide not to be your proxy.

Once someone has agreed to this, you’ll need to have a detailed talk about your healthcare preferences with them. You can download and work with The Conversation Project’s Conversation Starter Guide to help you prepare.

Name your healthcare proxy and alternate in an advance directive; give your proxy a copy of it, along with names and contact info for your primary care doctor and any other important healthcare team members; and give these healthcare team members your advance directive along with your proxy’s name and contact info.

Lastly, be sure to continue discussing your healthcare preferences with your proxy as your understandings and wishes evolve.

Resources:
https://theconversationproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/ChooseAProxyGuide.pdf, https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/ALTSA/stakeholders/documents/duals/toolkit/Health%20Care%20Proxy.pdf
https://www.nychealthandhospitals.org/healthtips/ask-our-expert-how-to-choose-your-health-care-proxy/
https://www.michigan.gov/documents/miseniors/Advance_Directives_230752_7.pdf
https://michiganlegalhelp.org/self-help-tools/wills-life-planning/making-health-care-power-of-attorney

Excerpted from the Winter 2021-22 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2021, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.

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