What the heck is a healthcare proxy? In a nutshell, they are like the ultimate wing (wo)man at a time when you most need one. A proxy is someone who speaks for you in a situation where medical circumstances make it impossible for you to speak for yourself. This person is chosen by you and knows your wishes. They communicate with your caregivers, make treatment decisions in your stead, and they may carry out directives regarding resuscitation, life support and/or end of life care. So, obviously, choosing a healthcare proxy is an incredibly important decision. But it’s a decision we all (well, all of us grownups) should really make, no matter at what age or stage we find ourselves.
All that talk up there about importance and what we “should” do is not meant to freak you out. Below are some questions to consider when choosing the person who will fill these very big shoes.
Do They Know What You Want?
Make sure you’re willing to have frequent open and honest conversations with the person you choose so that your preferences and directives are clear. And by the way, write down what you want too. Here’s a worksheet that may help. Proxies who are underprepared often struggle with indecision and guilt, which can lead to delayed decision making as well as outcomes that are not in line with your wishes.
Do They Know Why You Want What You Want?
If you explain your reasoning for wanting or not wanting certain types of care or life-saving measures, your healthcare proxy will be able to think more like you in the case of a more complex medical scenario.
Are They Willing to Carry out Your Wishes?
A proxy is only as effective as their willingness to do as you ask. If there’s a chance they’ll be compromised by personal values, religious beliefs or other conflicts of interest, you might want to look for someone who is prepared to represent you and your wishes without question. Who do you admire for thinking quickly and respecting other people’s perspectives, even when those viewpoints are not in line with theirs?
Can They Make Firm Decisions on Your Behalf?
Time and full information aren’t always on our side when it comes to critical healthcare decisions. Choose someone who has demonstrated the ability to think clearly and solve problems under pressure. While this may seem like a hefty list of personality traits, just know that your proxy doesn’t necessarily need all of them. But they definitely need to be steadfast and willing to take charge when the time comes to represent you.
Can They Be Assertive When Necessary?
Your proxy should also be ready to hold firm in the face of well-meaning (read: dissenting) family, friends and even medical professionals. If they feel compelled to gain consensus before making decisions, this isn’t the right role for them.
Do They Live Close to You?
While it’s certainly legal to live far away from your proxy, there are times when proximity is crucial. A proxy may need to be physically present when making decisions, and longer illnesses may require repeated trips, making physical distance and/or a frequent travel schedule difficult to manage.
Will They Also Be Your Financial Power of Attorney?
Ideally, the answer is yes, so that the person making the healthcare decisions is also able to release the necessary funds required to support those decisions. If not, make sure that your proxy and your power of attorney have an amicable relationship so that personal conflicts don’t get in the way of your care. Those frequent open and honest conversations apply here as well.
Do You Need a Healthcare Proxy?
No. In fact, if you can’t find someone who fits most of the considerations above, you might be better off with a clearly defined living will or one of the other Top 5 Healthcare Documents that outline your wishes. These documents are legally binding, so make sure more than one person knows that you've prepared them and where to find them. We suggest keeping them in a folder with your Farewelling Worksheet.