My friends tell me I should have a healthcare proxy. I don't want to end up like Terry Schiavo, but I don't have any close family and worry about signing away control of the decision making process. What do you recommend? -- Mary, Methuen
I understand your concerns, Mary, but I don't think you have anything to worry about. A healthcare proxy does not limit your control over medical decisions but, rather, allows your wishes to be honored even after you become incapacitated. (Generally, a healthcare proxy names and authorizes your healthcare agent, while a living will documents your wishes regarding end of life care. However, you may simply spell out your wishes in your proxy and not use a living will.)
Think of your proxy as a process, and you may find that you gain some comfort from the exercise of developing the document. Start by thinking about what you want and trying to express those wishes in writing. Next, communicate extensively with your prospective agents. Ask them the difficult questions and listen to their answers. Keep looking until you find a person who understands your wishes and is willing to carry them out should you become incapacitated, as she is required to do under Massachusetts law. Yes, this can be a challenge, even for those of us who have spouses, because often our spouses or other loved ones are unwilling or unable to honor our wishes. However, with patience and straight talk, we can all find someone who is willing to do the job properly.
Once you've completed these steps, I hope you will feel comfortable enough to execute your proxy. You should also understand that the existence of a proxy does not limit your right to determine the course of your medical treatment. As long as you are conscious and able to communicate, your wishes will prevail over those of any other party, including your healthcare agent or doctor, even if they believe you are irrational. If such a disagreement develops, you retain control unless a court of law determines you need a guardian. In that event, it is not the proxy that takes away your control, but a court that has heard evidence presented by all interested parties.
For more information or to post a question, visit our MA Elder Law Discussion Forum.