April is Health Care Decisions Month. A couple years ago, when I heard of this month-long awareness campaign, I thought it was odd. I didn’t understand the importance of having an official health care proxy and discussing how I want my medical care to be handled if I become unable to make decisions on my own. I did not know that my family would not automatically be making these decisions. To ensure that my wishes are known, it was important to set up a health care proxy.
A health care proxy is a document in which an individual appoints an agent to legally make health care decisions on behalf of the patient, when they are incapable of making and executing health care decisions. While a health care proxy can be setup with a lawyer when you prepare your will and other estate documents, it is not necessary to involve a lawyer in this specific document. A health care proxy can be completed at home and only needs your signature with two witnesses. (Note: you should work with a reputable attorney that specializes in estate planning when you prepare your estate documents.)
I downloaded my health care proxy form from the Honoring Choices Massachusetts website (www.honoringchoicesmass.com). This website will help you explore how to make care choices that are best for you. It has a step-by-step process that helps you to consider the various aspects of choosing an agent and discussing your wishes with them. It also has instructions on voiding a health care proxy, if your circumstances change.
Once you have chosen a health care agent, you should discuss your feelings on various health care situations with your agent and your doctor(s). The Honoring Choices website has various scenarios that they suggest discussing. Copies of your signed and witnessed document should be placed in your personal files and given to your health care agent and your doctor.
Once you have your health care proxy in place, there are other written plans you should consider (you can find these documents on www.honoringchoicesmass.com).
- Personal Directive – this is a living will. It provides the person you name in your Health Care Proxy with detailed instructions as to how you would like to be cared for. This is not a legal document in Massachusetts, so you want to choose someone who will respect your wishes, even if it is emotionally difficult for them to do so.
- Durable Power of Attorney – this is assigning a person you trust to handle your money, property and financial matters. It does not have to be the same person you name in your Health Care Proxy. It is recommended, but not required under law, that you compete a Durable Power of Attorney with a lawyer who can advise you given your personal financial matters.
- Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST) – This document communicates your choices regarding life-sustaining treatments should you become seriously ill. You and your family do not complete this form unless you become seriously ill, but there is a sample document on the website.
- Comfort Care/Do Not Resuscitate Order (CC/DNR) – This form indicates you do not want resuscitation efforts in the case your heart or breathing stops. It is completed by you or your health care agent should the circumstances for making this decision arise.
I was very nervous about asking my daughter to be my health care agent. I was afraid that she would panic and worry that I was ill right now. But, my fears were unfounded. We were able to have a conversation about how I feel about treatment options and a variety of situations. It wasn’t hard and it was a relief to know that this important task has been completed.