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Health Care Agents: Appointing One and Being One

Dying is a part of life, but can be a difficult process. Healthcare agents can make that process easier for patients, their loved ones, and their caregivers. Selecting a health care agent for yourself and agreeing to be an agent for someone you love are among the most important decisions you will ever make. This booklet was written to give you information that will help you make decisions effectively.

There is now clear legal and ethical agreement that patients should have the final authority to make decisions about their own medical treatment. But what happens when patients are too sick to make their decisions known? Every state now has a legal way for people to appoint a health care agent, someone who can be their voice and their advocate if they cannot speak for themselves.

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Why Caregivers Need Care, Too

Since Jeanne Erdmann's mother was diagnosed three years ago with dementia, she has taken on the daily responsibilities of bathing and dressing her mom, preparing her meals, making sure she takes her medicine, and managing her finances. "It wears you down. I think it's the grind of having someone there every day who needs more and more attention," says Erdmann, a medical journalist in Wentzville, Mo. Although she says she's happy to be there for her mom, Erdmann acknowledges the toll caregiving ...

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Healthcare agents are vital in this age of spectacular medical advances, because technology enables us to live longer, healthier lives. This technology can create difficult decisions about when to use it near the end of life. Many people want to decide whether or not to undergo life-sustaining treatment if it cannot cure or improve their condition, and can only prolong dying. When most people cannot make their own decisions, they want those decisions made by someone they know and trust, not by medical professionals, administrators, or judges. Appointing a health care agent ensures that your wishes and values guide decisions about your care.

Being the health care agent for someone can be a complex and emotionally wrenching task. These decisions involve deeply-held personal and moral values, as well as legal and medical issues. They are made under difficult circumstances-the death of a loved one-and they can be final decisions. However, being a health care agent can also be rewarding. It is an opportunity to serve and care for someone you love.

Healthcare agents can be extremely beneficial, but only if they are thoughtfully selected and well-prepared to assume the tasks involved. This booklet will provide important information if you are selecting a health care agent or if you are thinking about becoming an agent for someone else. By carefully considering the issues raised in this text, you can reduce uncertainty about what decisions will best reflect your wishes or those of the person for whom you will speak. Careful thought and preparation can even eliminate conflicts among health care professionals, family members, or other loved ones about these complex decisions.

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