Your senior parent’s ability to make decisions about their health is an essential part of independence. But what happens if your parent becomes sick or injured and isn’t able to tell healthcare providers what they want?
This is where a healthcare proxy comes into play, and it is an essential document for all seniors.
It’s important for all adults, but especially seniors, to make their wishes known about medical and end-of-life care. Encouraging your parent to do this while they are still healthy can help avoid unnecessary stress and confusion for your family down the road.
What is a healthcare proxy?
If your senior parent becomes incapacitated, it’s important that someone has the legal authority to communicate their wishes concerning their medical treatment.
A healthcare proxy is a legal document that allows your parent to appoint someone else to act as their voice for making medical decisions. You might also hear this document called a:
Health care agent
Health care power of attorney
Health care representative
Medical power of attorney
Regardless of the name, a healthcare proxy is a document that your parent creates while they are still able to speak for themselves. They can choose a person that they believe will respect their wishes regarding medical treatment and carry them out.
Typically, a healthcare proxy only takes effect when your parent requires medical treatment, and their doctor determines that they aren’t able to make or communicate decisions for themselves. This could be because they are severely ill or because they have serious cognitive decline due to dementia.
If your parent later becomes well enough to express their own wishes again, the healthcare proxy will no longer be in effect.
Should my senior parent have a healthcare proxy?
In a medical emergency, healthcare providers will take measures to keep your parent alive and treat their illness or injuries. Once the emergency has passed, though, your parent’s healthcare provider will need someone to make important decisions about their ongoing care.
If your parent hasn’t chosen a healthcare proxy and later becomes incapacitated, the court may assign someone to make their medical decisions.
There is a risk that this person may not make the decisions that your parent would have wanted. This can also cause conflict if family members disagree about what treatment your parent would want.
The best way to avoid this is by encouraging your senior parent to choose a healthcare proxy ahead of time, if they haven’t already.
By appointing a healthcare proxy and making their desires known before they become ill or incapacitated, your parent can make sure that someone is acting in their best interest and carrying out their wishes.
How can my parent choose a healthcare proxy?
Legally designating a healthcare proxy is typically fairly easy. The forms are available in most doctors’ offices, hospitals, or senior care facilities. Your parent may also want to consult with an elder care attorney before signing them.
Your parent should choose someone that they trust to have authority over their medical treatment. Typically this means a spouse, family member, or very close friend.
Before filling out a healthcare proxy form, your parent should talk to the person that they want to name. Encourage your parent to talk to their potential proxy about the following:
Their personal attitudes towards health, illness, death, and dying
What kind of care your parent wants if they become incapacitated or seriously ill
Any religious beliefs your parent wants incorporated into care
Whether the proxy thinks they could carry out your parent’s wishes
Your parent may also want to choose a backup healthcare proxy in case their first choice is unavailable when the time comes.
Once the healthcare proxy paperwork is drawn up, they should keep a copy for themselves, give one to the chosen proxy, and place one with their medical records.
Are there other documents my senior parent should have?
Every senior should, at minimum, designate a healthcare proxy. This isn’t the only healthcare-related document they may need, though.
Depending on your parent’s health situation, they may want to have some or all of these other documents prepared at the same time. Lawyers specializing in elder care may offer packages to complete multiple end-of-life or healthcare documents simultaneously.
An advanced directive can be part of a healthcare proxy form or separate. Also called a medical directive, this document provides written instructions to the healthcare proxy about what type of care your parent would and would not like.
Some items that may be covered by an advanced directive include:
Directions to refuse or remove life support in certain circumstances
Instructions to use all efforts to keep your parent alive, no matter the circumstances
Lists of what treatments your parent would or would not want
An advanced directive helps prevent a patient’s family from agonizing over what treatment they might want or not want.
A living will is a document that gives instructions for treatment if your parent becomes terminally ill or is in a persistent vegetative state. It states under what conditions life-sustaining treatment should be terminated.
Like a healthcare proxy, a living will only take effect if your parent becomes incapacitated. It can also be revoked or redone at any time if your parent’s wishes change.
A living will shouldn’t be confused with a “do not resuscitate” order (DNR). A DNR instructs healthcare providers not to try to revive your parent if they were to have a heart attack or stop breathing. This is typically used for patients who are very elderly or medically frail and don’t want CPR performed.
HIPAA authorization forms
The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) provides legal standards for keeping your parent’s health information and records private. This means that healthcare providers are unable to share details about your senior parent’s health unless your parent has given written consent.
HIPAA authorization forms allow your parent’s healthcare providers to keep chosen family members in the loop about their health.
Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST)
This form is newer than the other types of forms. It was developed because other forms were criticized as not being explicit enough for healthcare providers wanting to make decisions about a patient’s care.
The POLST uses a standardized medical form to indicate what specific types of life-sustaining treatment a seriously ill patient wants or doesn’t want if his or her condition worsens.
The POLST form is valid in California but not in every state. If your parent travels outside of California, it is a good idea for them to take copies of both their Advanced Directive and POLST with them.
We’re here to help
At Parentis Health, we’re always here to help. The healthcare providers and medical social workers in our hospice and palliative care programs are highly skilled in navigating end-of-life decisions.
They can help your family discuss your senior parent’s wishes and who your parent would like to be their healthcare proxy.
Contact us today for more information on helping your senior parent make end-of-life decisions.