Choosing the Health Care Agent

Once you’ve created the first part of the living will – the medical care desires – it’s time to choose the person to administer these wishes. The name differs by state and you may see the designee called: power of attorney for health care; health care agent, proxy, or surrogate; attorney-in-fact; or medical power of attorney. This is different than a regular “power of attorney” that most people set up to handle financial or estate issues and the health care agent only deals with the medical side of things.

Whatever the name, this is the person who will have to make those very difficult end-of-life decisions so choose wisely. Select a person who can function well under pressure and will not be swayed emotionally. The person chosen must understand the patient’s wishes and be comfortable following their directive. Be sure, too, to select someone that is available and easily reached during an emergency – some families also choose an alternate for times when the primary agent cannot be reached.

What to do with the finished document

Once you’ve filled everything out and had it properly notarized, the living will is a legal document and will be followed to the letter in case of illness. This is not really a document to be filed in a safety deposit box but rather kept in a safe but easily-accessed place such as a home filing cabinet. Be sure to distribute copies to all involved parties – of course, the selected health care agents but also clergy members (if appropriate), personal attorneys, and health care facilities. Once filed with the physician, your parent’s charts will be flagged so all medical staff knows there is a directive in place.

Discuss plans with the physician

This is also a good time to talk with your parent’s health care team to be sure they are comfortable with the wishes spelled out in the directive. In rare cases, some doctors will not agree with every choice and you may need to change physicians or confirm that they will carry out your parent’s plans.

The health care directive may be changed or withdrawn at any time and it’s a good idea to review it periodically to make sure your parents are still happy with their choices. If any significant changes are needed, it’s probably best to just fill out a new form. Also make sure to replace any old forms on file with the new updated form.

Need more information?

This topic is complex and you may want to check with your local library or medical facility for any books or pamphlets they have discussing living wills. Also, the National Institute of Health website has some fabulous links and information about everything I’ve written up here. I personally love the Mayo Clinic site – I’m probably a bit biased because they’re close to home but their website is great at explaining things in understandable layman’s language.

I know this is something you and your parents can get through! I accomplished it with my very private, very independent Mom and Dad and you can too. And now that it’s over and on file, I have a little bit of peace of mind – especially because I know that when the time comes my sister and I can focus on our family without the added stress of medical decision-making.


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