What if an accident or illness puts you in the hospital unable to speak for yourself about decisions?
Whom do you trust to discuss treatment with doctors on your behalf? Have you talked with that person about what kind of extreme medical measures you’d want provided in a life-threatening situation, including if your quality of life is vastly diminished? Do others close to you know you’ve selected that person as your surrogate?
All those questions and more are covered in “How to Choose a Health Care Proxy & How to Be a Health Care Proxy,” a guide newly produced by The Conversation Project. The national nonprofit group, based in Cambridge, Mass., as part of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, has added the guide to a list of starter kits it has promoted for the past several years. The kits, all aimed at encouraging more end-of-life planning and discussions among the general population, are online at theconversationproject.org.
“These guides are gentle ways of encouraging conversations around the kitchen table, encouraging people to have these conversations sooner rather than later,” said the Rev. Rosemary Lloyd, who serves as adviser to the faith community for the group and who helped develop the proxy guide.
In Pennsylvania, a proxy is actually known as a health care power of attorney. Sometimes it is also referred to as a health care agent. Whatever they’re called, documents signed by an individual — with or without an attorney’s help — designate a family member, friend or other trusted person to step in to make medical decisions if that individual is incapacitated.
Rev. Lloyd said it is important for all adults to designate a proxy, not just those who are old and sick. Before age 18, an individual’s parents automatically are to make decisions on his or her behalf. After that, it can become a legal and medical quagmire if there are serious decisions to be made and disagreements exist among family members. And depending on circumstances, Rev. Lloyd notes, a person might feel better off with someone outside the family as a decision-maker.
“A lot of people think you automatically have to choose your next of kin, and that’s not always the best person for you,” she said.
Regardless of who’s chosen, important discussions should take place between the two individuals well in advance of any medical situations that may arise. The proxy starter kit provides ample advice on what should be covered and how to do that. Those discussions are in addition to a need to fill out forms known as advance directives that include identifying the health care power of attorney as well as a living will.
Anyone interested in learning about and obtaining free forms endorsed by both the Allegheny County Bar Association and Allegheny County Medical Society to meet Pennsylvania’s advance directives requirements may do so at www.acba.org/public/livingwill.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.