How to Get a Healthcare Proxy

Q. My mother has dementia, and I’d like to get a healthcare proxy and gain access to her electronic health records. How do I go about doing this?

A. A healthcare proxy, sometimes referred to as a durable power of attorney (POA) for medicine or a healthcare advance directive, is a legal document that allows someone to designate another person to express her wishes and make healthcare decisions on her behalf when the patient cannot speak for herself.

First, if you haven’t done so already, have an honest conversation with your mother about her concerns, explaining that you feel it’s in her best interest for you to have access to her electronic medical records should you ever need to talk to her doctors about her symptoms, medications, or other aspects of her treatment. Ask about her preferences while she is able to provide them.

Unless her dementia is already very advanced, she should be able to express her wishes to you when you ask. Then, you can fill out the proxy together and have her sign it, along with at least one witness (which can’t be you). You don’t need a lawyer for the paperwork unless your case is unusually complex.

Although many internet sources offer generic healthcare proxy forms, laws can vary by state so it’s best to use a state-specific form. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization offers forms, or you can go to your state’s health department website, which should also have them.

Read the form carefully and tailor it to your mother’s specific wants. In your case, for example, you would want to ensure that a clause allowing you to access her electronic medical records is included (a healthcare proxy typically allows you to only make decisions on the patient’s behalf, not necessarily access her medical records).

When it comes to dementia, the earlier you’re able to have a discussion with your mother and have her sign a healthcare proxy form, the better. While patients with dementia typically have problems with short-term memory, in earlier stages, they are able to express their preferences.

If your mother is already too incapacitated to make informed decisions, you may need to take the bigger step of asking a court to appoint you as her legal guardian. In this case, you would file a petition in court and attend a hearing. Your mother will receive a copy of the petition.

If you anticipate any difficulties, such as your mother or another family member objecting to your guardianship and disputing it, it’s worth hiring an elder-law attorney to help you through the process.