One of the most important health care decisions you will make is choosing your power of attorney. Depending on where you live, a power of attorney also may be called a health care proxy, patient advocate, or health care representative. Regardless of the name, a power of attorney is someone you choose to make health and medical decisions for you if you’re unable to make them for yourself.1
For most people, having this person in place to make medical decisions when they are no longer able to do so can bring peace of mind. Some people choose to designate a power of attorney immediately after a diagnosis or before getting surgery. But really, you can designate your power of attorney anytime you want. You simply need to have an attorney draw up the paperwork. You also can specify when the duties of the power of attorney begin to take effect.
Health Care Proxy vs. Power of Attorney
An important distinction is that under many U.S. jurisdictions, a health care proxy may also fill this role. In this case, a loved one is chosen as your delegate only for medical decision-making (not finances, administration of will, etc.). To assign a health care proxy, you’ll fill out a document in a hospital setting and just need two witnesses to complete it—you do not need a lawyer for this purpose. A power of attorney, however, is a more formal document that can have medical as well as legal and financial implications.
Who Should You Pick as Your Power of Attorney?
Most people select their spouse, a relative, or a close friend to be their power of attorney. But you can name anyone you want: Remember that selecting a power of attorney is not about choosing the person closest to you, but rather the one who can represent your wishes the best. The key is that you trust the person completely. You also should feel comfortable discussing your health care wishes with them. While your power of attorney may not agree with everything you want, they have to be willing to follow through even though they disagree. If you feel pressured to change your opinions, then that is a sign that this person would not make a good representative for you. You need to find someone who is willing to respect your wishes. If your selected person cannot do that, it’s best to find someone else. The last thing you need is to deal with family peer pressure or to worry that your wishes will not be carried out.
Characteristics to Look For
Because your power of attorney will be handling your medical affairs, you’ll want to choose someone who either has some experience in that area or has the needed skills to handle those decisions. Look for the following six characteristics before making your selection. Doing so will help ensure that you’ll pick the best possible person for the job.
Someone Who Lives Nearby
Consider where your potential power of attorney lives. How close are they to you or your preferred hospital or care center? Keep in mind that a health care proxy or power of attorney may need to get to the hospital or care center quickly in an emergency. Consequently, choosing someone who lives out of state may not be the best choice. You’ll want to find someone who lives nearby.
Someone Who Is Trustworthy
When choosing a power of attorney, it is important to consider the person’s character and values. Ask yourself if this person can be trusted with such a big responsibility. Are they likely to follow through on the demands of being power of attorney? Will they follow your wishes? You’re trusting this person to speak on your behalf. As a result, you need to select someone whom you can count on and can be trusted. After all, they will be making decisions that will impact your life.
Someone Who Can Be Assertive
Being a power of attorney is not always an easy task, especially when emotions are running high. Before selecting your power of attorney, think about their communication style. Are they assertive or passive? Are they able to stand up to other people and hold their ground when under pressure? You’ll want to find someone who will not back down when it comes to supporting your wishes, no matter how much pressure they get from family members and friends. What’s more, the person you select should be able to communicate clearly without wavering or second-guessing what they’re doing.
Someone Who Has Some Understanding of Medical Processes
Remember, your power of attorney is charged with making health care decisions on your behalf. As a result, you’ll want to select someone who has some understanding of how medical processes work. This does not mean that you have to select a doctor or a nurse in the family. The point is that you’ll need someone who knows how to ask the right questions, especially about medical tests, procedures, prognosis, and the overall value of medical intervention. Ideally, the person you choose would be someone who isn’t afraid to challenge suggestions or treatment options that go against your wishes. What’s more, you want someone who is willing to research your condition and learn as much as they can about it. This type of person would make a good power of attorney.
Someone Who Is Articulate
Think about how your prospective power of attorney communicates. Is this person naturally a calm person who is able to communicate clearly and effectively, even under pressure? Or does this person become easily flustered when things get heated or emotional? Would this person be able to communicate your wishes clearly and effectively, not only to your family members but to your medical team as well? You want to pick someone who has strong communication skills. This means you need to really think about the person’s speech patterns. Does it take him or her a while to get to the point? If this is the case, you may want to reconsider selecting him or her. In challenging medical situations, the person you choose needs to be a decisive and strong communicator.
Someone Who Has a Willingness to Serve
Remember that being a power of attorney can be a stressful and demanding responsibility, and not everyone is cut out to perform the tasks required. When choosing your power of attorney, talk to the person you are considering. Be sure that they feel they could serve in this capacity. Encourage the person to be honest. The last thing you want is for someone to say yes to being your power of attorney when in reality the role would end up being too overwhelming.