Powers of Attorney Serve as Medical Safety Net for Seniors

Megan Ray  |  April 24, 2014

There may come a time when seniors will have to make a medical decision, but are not capable of doing so because of compromised competency or other disabilities that leave them unable to advocate for themselves. While this can be a challenging point in time for both individuals and their loved ones, a medical power of attorney is there to help them handle this situation, stepping in to ensure that every health care choice coincides with seniors' wishes. That being said, you will have to do a great deal of preparation in anticipation of this occurring, working with seniors and their families to guarantee you are all on the same page so each potential medical decision matches people's desires.

Explain your obligations
First and foremost, before any legal action is taken, you should sit down with seniors so you can thoroughly discuss what a power of attorney does and what it would mean to their medical care further down the road. You will want to go over all of your duties, so they know exactly what would come from filing the paperwork to appoint you as power of attorney. 

For instance, they should be aware of the extension of your rights as power of attorney. The American Bar Association explained that once seniors' health care providers find that these patients can no longer make or effectively communicate decisions about their medical treatment, you will take over as the person legally responsible for choosing the course of action and carrying out their wishes.

Explain to them that in this case, you will have the right to refuse, withdraw or give your consent when it comes to seniors' treatment plans, surgeries, medications, tests and any other kind of care. This includes choices about where they are receiving treatment - whether it be a hospital, assisted living facility or nursing home - as well as who is administering or managing their care, such as physicians, nurses and even social workers. Lastly, you will want to clearly communicate that you would have to make postmortem decisions in terms of how their remains would be handled, if they would serve as organ or tissue donors and if anything would be used for research purposes.

Understand their wishes 
After going over the wide array of rights that you would have as a seniors' power of attorney, you must have a candid conversation about their medical care goals and wishes. To begin this conversation, you may want to have an open forum in which they can first express their main medical concerns and how they would like to deal with these issues if they were ever to occur. Once they share their initial issues, you will need to explore these worries in depth, in addition to throwing out other possible scenarios to see how they would react. 

Although these theoretical decisions could seem endless, there are certain ones about which you must inquire. For example, you should have an understanding of their opinions on resuscitation and life support, ranging from eating tubes to ventilators - distinguishing the difference between temporary use and long-term dependence void of any improvement in health. You will need to clarify how they feel about trial treatments, procedures and medications. These questions only scratch the surface with regard to the issues you need to discuss with seniors, and you should address every possibility imaginable so you don't find yourself in an ambiguous dilemma later on.

As soon as both of you reach an understanding, you must make moves to ensure your arrangement is legally binding. You need to fill out the power of attorney forms and have them signed in front of multiple witnesses. While you are completing these documents, seniors may also want to write and authorize a living will, specifying their health care desires so there is no question when it comes time to make medical decisions.