Drinking coffee on the porch this gorgeous autumn morning ("Florida Autumn,” which means it's 73 degrees and not a leaf in sight dropping), I thought about the upcoming holiday season. Families and friends will gather to celebrate, bond and honor memories and traditions. Many people will travel to see loved ones they typically don't see most of the year. And during this time, caregivers of all types (past, present and eventual) will be hard-pressed to not think of their loved ones’ health and well-being and what the future holds.
Although the subject may seem gloomy, the holidays present a golden opportunity to have meaningful conversations about creating a care plan that will guide your loved ones in helping each other out in case of emergencies or advancing years. While “Have you thought about dying, please pass the sweet potatoes” may not be the way to broach it, talking about your wishes openly and matter-of-factly will set the tone and start the process.
Designate a health care surrogate
The first step toward formalizing your family care plan is to execute health care surrogate designations.
A health care surrogate designation is a legal document that appoints a person to become your “surrogate” if you become incapacitated. (Incapacity is defined as the physical or mental inability to manage your affairs.) The designation document gives your surrogate legal authority to talk to your doctors, manage your medical care and even make medical decisions for you if you cannot do so.
You can also create a designation that gives your surrogate authority to act on your behalf even if you are not incapacitated. This can be helpful for caregivers, especially if a loved one has a chronic illness and may have the mental capacity to decide their course of treatment, but may not have the energy to manage their medical care. It also may come into play if a loved one is under influence of medications that make it difficult to talk to doctors and remember the conversation. If you are contemplating a surgery with a long recovery time or facing a long-term health issue, creating this kind of surrogate designation may be the right choice.
No matter the kind of surrogate designation that is right for you today, what is important is that you create one without delay. At this time, less than 40 percent of Americans have a health care surrogate. That means 60 percent of us are rolling the dice on what would happen if the unexpected occurred. While most of us hope for a long and healthy life, catastrophic events can happen anytime to anyone. And tragedies are only compounded when we are left to guess what an incapacitated patient would want for their medical care or, even worse, when the patient's loved ones disagree about how to best help the patient.
Health care surrogate designation documents are readily accessible for free online, are easy for most people to understand, and (in most cases) can be filled out in the comfort of your own home. It can't be said enough: every person over age 18 should have one. That means every adult at your holiday gatherings, from the college students to great-grandparents can and should join the conversation about a family care plan.
If you are the bold and intrepid holiday guest who will start the conversation on planning and health care surrogate designations, here are some talking points to guide you.