Healthcare Proxies

Healthcare Proxies

Have an aging parent? It’s time to talk to them about having a healthcare proxy.

One of the important decisions your parents should make as they age is who will act as their healthcare proxy. The healthcare proxy makes medical decisions for your parent if they can’t communicate their wishes themselves. A proxy’s job is to make sure that your parent’s medical team knows and follows their healthcare preferences.

According to the journal Health Affairs, only 67% of people have named a healthcare proxy. But by making their wishes known in advance, your parent can avoid forcing family members to make difficult choices at one of the most stressful times in their lives.

To name a healthcare proxy, your parent can use an advance directive called the power of attorney for healthcare. This legal document provides instructions for a person’s healthcare and goes into effect only if your parent cannot express their desires themselves.

A proxy can be used in addition to or instead of a living will, another type of advance directive that summarizes someone’s preferences for medical treatment, like life-prolonging procedures.

What a healthcare proxy does

Your parent can specify how much control their proxy has over their medical care and choose which decisions they’d like their doctor to make as well as outline other preferences. Giving the healthcare proxy flexibility may help ensure your parent gets the best care.

Here are common responsibilities of a healthcare proxy, although this can vary by state, according to the National Institute of Aging (NIA):

  • Deciding the types of medical care, procedures, treatments, or services someone receives
  • Selecting healthcare providers and where they will receive care
  • Overseeing information about a person’s physical or mental health and their personal affairs, including medical and hospital records
  • Becoming their guardian if one is needed

Choosing a healthcare proxy

It might be hard for your parent to think about choosing a healthcare proxy. It’s a big decision, and it involves considering illness and loss of control. You can help by talking them through the various questions to consider about any potential proxy:

  • Am I comfortable talking with this person about my wishes and priorities for healthcare?
  • Will this person honor my wishes and do as I ask when the time comes?
  • Do I trust this person with my life?
  • Can this person handle conflicting opinions from my family, friends, and healthcare providers?
  • Is this person comfortable making quick decisions in a changing situation?
  • Could this person ask challenging questions of a doctor?
  • Does this person live near me, or would they travel to be with me if needed?

“Your proxy should be someone you are comfortable sharing your philosophy on future health care and quality of life with,” Joan Smith, director of social work services at Tufts Medical Center told Nerd Wallet. “This is someone who you trust to respect your wishes until the end.”

For various reasons – estrangement, religious differences, mental and emotional capacity – a family member may not always be the best choice. It could be a close friend, a neighbor, or a member of a faith community. It’s important to put your personal feelings aside if your parent chooses someone outside the family to be their healthcare proxy.

Your parent should make sure that whoever they choose is comfortable taking on the responsibility. They should also talk with them about what it means to be a proxy, and be sure the proxy understands what matters to them. Discussing this before a parent is having a healthcare crisis can make it easier for the proxy to make decisions for them if it becomes necessary.

You can help your parent by tracking down the correct forms and advising them of next steps in the process. Many states have their own forms that can be accessed and completed for free. Contact your state’s attorney general’s office or your local Area Agency on Aging.

Are your parents enrolled in the right Medicare plan?

While you’re encouraging your parents to take care of their estate planning, it may be a good time to be sure they have the right Medicare coverage for them. Does their Medicare plan cover vision and hearing tests? Will it cover rides to a doctor’s office if they’re unable to drive? Many Medicare Advantage plans offer these and other benefits. Use our Find a Plan tool to see what plans are available in your parents’ area.

Additional resources

Lynn Cicchelli is a writer with over 20 years' worth of experience creating healthy lifestyle content for both print and digital publications. Originally from New York, Lynn currently lives in Connecticut with her husband, stepson, and dog Indiana.


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