How would you finish this sentence? “The end-of-life care I would want is …”
Would you want all possible measures taken? To be in a hospital or at home? Surrounded by family and friends? Once you’ve decided, now imagine arriving at an emergency room unable to speak or tell anyone what you want. If you haven’t chosen someone to express your wishes — a health care proxy (also known as a health care agent or a power of attorney for health care) — they may never be known.
According to The Conversation Project, co-founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ellen Goodman in collaboration with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, half of those 65 and older ending up at the hospital are unable to speak for themselves. The organization has created a starter kit to help us talk about the care we’d want as well as a guide on how to choose a health care proxy.
Why You Need a Proxy
Dr. Javette Orgain has experienced up close what happens when a medical crisis hits and there’s no proxy. Orgain practices medicine at VITAS Healthcare in Chicago and is an associate professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, department of family medicine.
It’s best for patients and their physicians to understand under what conditions a person wants to be resuscitated, be intubated or receive comfort care only.
“I’ve seen families argue over who should make the decisions and what those decisions should be,” Orgain says, adding that some have even ended up in the courts.
Stepping in with her sisters to fill the proxy role for their mother and aunt, Orgain says that as a doctor many decisions were deferred to her. But when it came time to choose who would make her end-of-life care decisions if she was unable, Orgain chose a lifelong friend. She knew there wouldn’t be the emotional pull her family might have that would shift them away from carrying out her wishes.
Choose the Right Person as a Health Care Proxy
It’s vital to find the person you can trust. Orgain says she’s witnessed what happens when a health care proxy doesn’t honor what was wanted.
“It’s the most harrowing of experiences when the proxy isn’t chosen well,” says Orgain. “In fact, choosing the right proxy is as important as having a proxy.”
When families haven’t had the conversation, they’re often left at the bedside of their ill loved one with many factors pushing on them, says Dr. Jessica Zitter, who practices critical and palliative care at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., and authored the book Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life.
“There can often be a push to keep people alive on a machine. If the family doesn’t know what would be wanted, we try to support them as substitute or surrogate decision makers, but it’s very stressful and painful for them,” Zitter says.