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What's a Health Care Proxy and Why Do I Need One?

  • January 27th, 2023

Closeup of senior woman's hands as she signs a document.The senior population across the United States has increased to more than 54 million people since 2019. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of Americans 65 and older will rise to 80.8 million by 2040.

As people age, their health care needs increase. Seniors deal with chronic and acute medical conditions that can land them in the hospital unexpectedly. A health care proxy will ensure that your medical treatment preferences are honored if you cannot express them yourself.

What Is a Health Care Proxy?

A health care proxy is a person you appoint to make medical decisions if you lose consciousness, or your physical or mental health has deteriorated so much that you cannot express your wishes for medical treatment. You name a health care proxy in a document called an advance directive.

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Naming a health care proxy is important because having an agent before you fall ill helps protect patient autonomy. If you do not have a health care proxy, your family will have to guess about your preferences for medical treatment, or worse, your preferences will be ignored altogether.

Who Should I Name as My Health Care Proxy?

Typically, seniors have their spouse, children, other family members, or trusted friends act as their agents. Your health care proxy should carefully follow your instructions and not be influenced by others. A good health care proxy should also possess the following qualities:

  • Trustworthiness
  • Commitment to following through on your wishes
  • Careful attention to detail
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Knowledge of your medical condition and history
Can You Have 2 Health Care Proxies?

The rules may vary by state, but in the majoirty of cases, you are permitted to appoint one agent. There may be the ability to appoint an alternate agent.

Health Care Proxy vs. Power of Attorney

A power of attorney and a health care proxy are two separate documents. 

A power of attorney allows the individual you have appointed to act in your place when it comes to financial affairs should you become incapacitated.

A health care proxy gives an agent the authority to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to communicate such decisions.

Learn more on ElderLawAnswers.com about handling disputes that may arise between your power of attorney and health care proxy.

When Do I Need an Advance Directive?

It is prudent to have an advance directive as a part of your estate plan. You should complete an advance directive before you are incapacitated.

An advance directive is a document a person uses to record their medical treatment preferences for lifesaving care. An advance directive becomes a part of your medical record, and it is only used in an emergency or for lifesaving care.

Seniors should get an advance directive as soon as possible. Older people are at higher risk of chronic and acute diseases that could lead to medical emergencies. If you suffer from one or more of the following illnesses, you also should consider drafting an advance directive:

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Cancer
  • Hypertension
  • Kidney Disease/Kidney Failure
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Heart Disease
How Do I Get an Advance Directive?

Every state across the country allows a version of an advance directive, although the document may have a different name depending on the state where you live. Advance directives are sometimes called living wills, medical directives, or durable power of attorney.

Some states have a standard form it requires people to complete and will serve as their advance directive. Other states allow people to draft their own document. If you complete a standardized form or have an attorney draft an original document, make sure you review it thoroughly to ensure it correctly reflects your wishes.

Speak to an elder law attorney in your area to learn how to complete an advance directive.


Last Modified: 01/27/2023
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