Health Care Proxy & Five Wishes – at 18 and 81

by Jan Simpson

Has your 18-year-old signed a health care proxy? Last week, I wrote about a durable power of attorney, one of two legal documents that help family members support an ailing parent or loved one. The second document is called a health care proxy or a health care power of attorney. While we often think about the importance of a health care agent for an older loved one, most parents are less aware of the need to have their 18-year-old assign them as their agent.

A health care proxy is a legal document that gives the person named, often a family member, the authority to make all health care decisions for a loved one if he or she is unable to express his or her wishes. I first learned about proxies when I accompanied my father to the hospital on the day of his lung surgery. When we arrived, as part of the admissions process, my father was given a clipboard of documents to sign. Although my dad and mother had written a will and were diligent about updating it periodically, they had never drafted a health care proxy. According to the clerk, the hospital would not perform surgery unless my dad legally designated a health care agent to make decisions on his behalf, if necessary.

Facing lung surgery with hope and optimism, the clerk’s words sliced though his unspoken confidence about a favorable outcome. A flash of fear crossed his face. “Jan,” he said signing the document and handing it to me, “don’t give up on me.” I took the form and recorded my mother’s name as the health care agent, with me as the alternate. “Don’t worry,” I replied, winking at the nurse while trying to restore his fighting spirit, “you’re the cat with nine lives and this is only number seven.” He laughed and relaxed noticeably.

My dad had thirty seconds to make a decision about a health care agent and how he wanted to be treated.  I would have preferred to talk with him about his wishes over tea or a family dinner.  Fortunately today, 13 million Americans are having those conversations using a document called Five Wishes. In a clear, easy-to-follow-format, this document helps you indicate your wishes about:

  1. The Person I want to Make Care Decisions for Me When I Can’t
  2. The Kind of Medical Treatment I Want and Don’t Want
  3. How Comfortable I Want to Be
  4. How I Want People to Treat Me
  5. What I Want my Loved Ones to Know

Many Councils on Aging, religious organizations, and attorneys are helping older people thoughtfully complete their Five Wishes long before they face a serious medical crisis.  You can order a copy here for $5. (A reminder: I do not have a financial arrangement with this organization). Consider buying a copy and using it to jump start a conversation with your parents.

Older loved ones are not the only family members who need to designate a health care agent.  Consider the following nightmare scenario. Your 18-year old daughter is in an automobile accident and is lying unconscious in the hospital. You rush to the hospital only to learn that you are not legally authorized to access information about her medical status or to direct medical treatment. Read more here and then consider contacting your attorney to draft a health care proxy for your adult children on their 18th birthdays.

Has each adult in your family designated a health care agent?

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