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Make sure you have a healthcare proxy

“It’s April do you know where your healthcare proxy is?” I adapted this saying from a local news station who use to say, “It’s 11 o’clock do you know where your children are?” because in April we celebrate National Healthcare Decision Day. We can’t overstress the importance of healthcare proxies and other legal documents that describe our wishes or appoint someone to make decisions for us if we are suddenly unable to. Healthcare proxies are very important and are not just for the old and aging. Everyone over the age of 18 should have a healthcare proxy. This simple legal document names someone to make decisions regarding your healthcare if and only if you cannot make your wishes known.

Every year more people are contacting our office with family disagreements about the care of a parent or an older relative who can no longer make their own decisions. Usually a spouse/caregiver has died unexpectedly and no one has been legally named to make decisions. They are looking for help to resolve these situations because family members disagree about what care is best. That is what a Healthcare Proxy does. A healthcare proxy does not take away your ability to make your own decisions, but it appoints the person who knows you best to make the decisions you would want in a crisis or if you are incapacitated. Like its name a healthcare proxy is all about healthcare decisions like do you want a feeding tube, to be put on a respirator, or other life saving measures. It does not allow the person to make financial decision for you unless you also give them a Power of Attorney.

In my family, my mom who is 85 has my brother as her healthcare proxy (he’s a doctor and the oldest child), my sister is her power of attorney. We discourage people from naming two people as co-health care proxies or co-POAs because in a crisis people often disagree which can lead to hard feelings and delays in care. It is not only important to complete these documents well before you need them but it is also very important that you have a discussion with all the people involved before appointing someone as your healthcare proxy or POA so everyone knows what your wishes are. This will go a long way to preventing family disagreements.

I started off by asking, “Do you know where your healthcare proxy is?” A healthcare proxy is only good if you can find it in a crisis. Usually we fill out a healthcare proxy at the hospital or MD office and think that is good enough but most people don’t realize that healthcare proxies are not automatically shared between hospitals, primary care offices, and other local healthcare providers. That was the inspiration for the Chautauqua Health Network to starting a local Healthcare Proxy Registry. This registry is a place where you can deposit your health care proxy so that you or any of your healthcare providers can access it when needed. By putting your proxy on the registry, all medical personnel in the county will be able to view the information if needed. In addition, the registry sends you reminders to update or review your information every 18 months to make sure everything is still correct.

National HealthCare Decision Day was established to bring awareness to the importance of advance care planning but I think the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates why it is so very important. We never know when illness or injury will land us in the hospital and suddenly unable to make clear decisions about our care. My heart goes out to the families that found themselves in this awful situation of having family member who was robust and healthy one day become suddenly severely ill and on a respirator. And, there is nothing worse in a crisis than having families argue and bicker because they cannot agree on the care of a loved one. If the person dies, it can tear families apart.

The Office for Aging Services is the current host of the Chautauqua Healthcare Proxy Registry. We encourage everyone to take a moment this month to complete your health care proxy and get it on the registry. Express your wishes about healthcare before a crisis occurs. Give yourself some peace of mind that your family will know what to do for you if you are unable to tell them. For more information on healthcare proxies, the local registry, or to request a proxy form contact our NY Connects Helpline at 753-4582, 363-4582, or 661-7582. For more information on National Healthcare Decision Day visit their website at www.nhdd.org.

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