Many people consider information and decisions about their health to be highly sensitive, deserving of the strongest protection under the law. Therefore, when it comes to your parent's healthcare, the law is very strict about who is able to participate in healthcare-related conversations and decisions.
However, many people never think about their views and values regarding end-of-life decisions until a crisis hits – the time when decision-making is most difficult. Not planning in advance means that you might not be able to gain access to the information you need, or act on your parent's behalf if they are unable to do so. In a worst-case scenario, you might be forced to fight in court for guardianship, a time-consuming and costly process. You can avoid this scenario by working with your parent to prepare these documents.
The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) keeps a person's health information and records private. Unless your parent authorizes in writing someone else to receive that information, it is illegal for doctors to share any details with you about your parent's health. HIPAA authorization is a simple document that authorizes the doctor to share necessary information with you on your elderly parent's behalf. It's very short and only takes a moment to complete. The doctor's office will have the blank form you need.
Health Care Proxy
Also known as a medical power of attorney, a health care proxy is a legal document that enables you to make health care decisions for your elderly parent in the event they are unable to make those decisions themselves. This document must be prepared while your parent is still mentally competent to do so.
The designated person has the power to make all health care decisions for your elderly parent. However, to avoid the difficulties associated with making joint decisions, only one person can be given authority to act on your parent's behalf. For example, two siblings cannot both be named as a health care proxy—it must be only one person. An alternate person may be designated at the time the document is prepared in the event the first person is unable or unwilling to serve.
It is crucial that the person who is named health care proxy know what the elderly parent's wishes are in the event that they need life support, a feeding tube or intravenous fluids to survive. This is why the patient's living will, known as an advance care directive, is a very important document for family caregivers to have.
Advance Health Care Directive
This is commonly known as a living will. An Advance Health Care Directive lets people make their own end-of-life care decisions before a medical crisis strikes, even if they are unable to communicate their own wishes. With a living will, the caregiver and other loved ones don't have to agonize over difficult medical decisions. A living will should spell out:
- Whether the person wants to be resuscitated if he or she stops breathing
- Whether artificial life support should be used
- Whether a feeding tube should be inserted
A living will may indicate care or treatment the person does or does not want performed under specific circumstances.
Once a healthcare emergency strikes, it will probably be too late to prepare these documents, so talk to your parent about getting their affairs in order and spell out their wishes regarding healthcare while they are still healthy.
Consult an attorney specializing in elder law who will prepare these items and can provide advice on additional planning tools, depending on your family's circumstances.