Center for a Secure Retirement
What Is a Health Care Proxy?

What Is a Health Care Proxy?

As you age, it's natural to think more about your health. Sometimes people get sick in their retirement years. Sometimes people stay healthy but need a little help with day-to-day activities like cooking and cleaning.

But what happens if you become too ill to make your own health care decisions, or if you're incapacitated and can't communicate what you want? How do you make sure that someone is there to make good decisions on your behalf?

A health care proxy — also called a health care power of attorney — is one way to ensure your wishes are kept when you can't communicate them. Here's what you need to know.

What Is a Health Care Proxy?

A health care proxy is a document that names someone, called an agent, who'll express your wishes and make health care decisions for you if you can't make decisions for yourself.

It's sort of like a power of attorney, which is a legal document that gives someone the authority to make decisions for you in legal or financial situations. Having a power of attorney is helpful if you can't physically sign documents because of an illness or disability. In these cases, the person you've appointed as your power of attorney makes those decisions in your place.

A power of attorney is a valuable tool, but a general one is void if you are incapacitated. That's where a durable power of attorney comes into play. It extends your protection to cover you if you become incapacitated and can't make decisions for yourself.

A health care proxy works like that, but expressly for health care. Your agent will follow your wishes as you've laid them out. They have the final say in your medical care and treatment.

Planning for Possible Medical Needs

You might think that you don't have to worry about having a medical proxy right now. Your retirement might be years away, and you might live a healthy lifestyle.

But you never know what might happen tomorrow, let alone 20 years from now. A health care proxy can help if you're incapacitated at any age. If you're in a car accident and unconscious for some time or have a heart attack and need emergency surgery, your proxy can make critical decisions for you until you recover.

A proxy works in end-of-life plans, too. You might have cancer or live with dementia as you age. Those situations can make it very difficult to communicate your health care wishes. Having a proxy in place will help ensure that your medical wishes are followed.

Setting Up a Health Care Proxy

If having a medical proxy is right for you, think about these things as you move forward.

  • Think about your medical wishes, and express them clearly in writing. For example, you might not want to be put on a ventilator. Write that down, and your proxy will refuse that treatment.
  • Discuss your wishes with your proxy, too. Let them know your feelings on palliative care and life-extending treatments, your religious beliefs and how long you want to receive care if you're unconscious without hope of recovery.
  • Ensure that your proxy knows your medical history and is someone you trust. They might feel pressure from your loved ones to make decisions that don't align with what you've laid out.
  • You can also list a backup proxy who can make decisions if you're incapacitated and your primary proxy can't be reached.
  • Notify your loved ones, your primary care physician and any other doctors you see about your proxy.

Choosing a proxy can be a hard decision, but having one might make things easier for your loved ones if you can't make your own decisions. Your proxy will make sure you're getting the medical treatment and care you want.

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