Who Would Speak For You If You Couldn’t Speak For Yourself
Just as you name an executor to distribute your property after you die, it’s important to name someone to carry out your medical-care wishes in the event you become incapacitated.
Of course, no one plans to become incapacitated, but it could happen to anyone at any time. If you suffered a head injury from which you were unlikely to regain consciousness, who would tell the doctors how aggressively to treat you and what life-sustaining measures to take?
If you had named a Health Care Agent in advance, he or she would be the authoritative voice in making medical decisions on your behalf.
How do I appoint a Health Care Agent?
First, choose someone you trust and who knows you well. This person must be willing and able to make potentially difficult decisions about your medical treatment. It is important to thoroughly discuss and document your desires, values, thoughts about death and dying, and your treatment preferences for various situations. The more your agent knows about you and your values, the more likely he or she will be to make the kinds of decisions you would make if you were able.
The document used to appoint a health care agent is called an Advanced Health Care Directive. You can find the forms in various places, including a doctor’s office, hospital, senior center, law office, or department of aging. The document is easy to fill out, and doesn’t require an attorney to complete! (Of course, our office will be happy to assist.)
When does my Health Care Agent take over?
As long as you have decision-making capacity, you have the right to make decisions about your own health care. You are presumed to have capacity unless your primary physician determines otherwise. At that point, your physician must determine if you have provided specific health care instructions (preferably written, as in a Living Will) and whether you have designated a surrogate decision-maker or health care agent. Your physician should provide your agent with the same information he or she would have provided you, and your doctor must comply with your agent’s decisions.
If you didn’t appoint a Health Care Agent in advance, and you lost the ability to communicate, decisions about your medical care might be made by a court-appointed conservator, family members (who might feel uncomfortable in this position or disagree with each other), doctors, hospital administrators or a judge.
If I have an agent, do I still need a Living Will?
While it isn’t necessary to have a Living Will if you already have a health care agent, having both is ideal. A living will provide specific instructions about the type of end-of-life care you want to receive, and helps your agent, doctors and family members better understand your wishes.
But a living will can’t possibly cover all medical situations, which is why an agent is so important. An agent has the ability to talk to doctors and make decisions based on changing circumstances and situations. Your agent can seek second opinions and ensure that doctors adhere to the treatment preferences spelled out in your living will. Like the executor of your will, think of your health care agent as the executor of your living will.
And remember, assigning a health care agent is ultimately an act of love – for yourself, your family members and your friends.