Power of Attorney vs. Health Care Proxy: What Are the Differences?

Sometimes, dementia or other health issues can stand in the way of your senior loved one getting the best care possible. If Mom is experiencing the early stages of dementia or has other health issues that are limiting her ability to rationalize, travel, move around the house, pay bills, or take care of herself hygienically, it may be time for you and other loved ones to discuss taking charge of her finances and health care. It might also be time to help her make the move to assisted living.

This discussion can be a difficult one. So it’s important to remember, especially in multi-sibling households, that this conversation is not about winning or losing. Set your ego aside, and have a discussion that is solely about Mom’s best interests. Before deciding who will be Mom’s primary caregiver, several factors should be considered: Who lives closest to Mom? Who is in the best life situation to take charge? Do you want to spread jobs out between more than one caregiver or designate one person as caregiver?

If you can’t come to an agreement on your own, consider having an impartial party, like an attorney who specializes in elder law, help you come to a decision. One thing that you all may discuss is designating a power of attorney and a health care proxy for Mom. But what do those titles mean and are they different? The differences between power of attorney and health care proxy are detailed below.

Power of Attorney

There are two types of power of attorney: general power of attorney and special power of attorney. A general power of attorney gives powers to a person or organization to act on Mom’s behalf. These powers include handling any financial or business transaction decisions. A general power of attorney is a broader, less defined way of granting someone the ability to make financial decisions on Mom’s behalf. With a special power of attorney, you can specify exactly what powers the person acting on Mom’s behalf has. Managing properties, such as selling a property or collecting rent, is an example of a specific power that can be granted under a special power of attorney. A special power of attorney is used only when it’s necessary to define which financial powers are granted.

Health Care Proxy

A health care proxy, sometimes also referred to as a health care power of attorney, grants someone the power to make medical decisions for Mom if she is mentally incompetent, unconscious, or unable to make health care decisions on her own for any other reason. A health care proxy is different from a living will, although some states will allow you to combine the two legal documents. If the person that you designate as the health care proxy for your senior mom is different from the person granted power of attorney, they will need to work together. The person granted the health care proxy gets the final say on decisions regarding Mom’s medical situation, but the person granted the power of attorney is the one who must pay for Mom’s health care. If for some reason the two people disagree on what is the right decision, a lawyer may need to be brought in in order to come to a final decision.


Throughout every discussion, please remember that just because one sibling may say, “No, I can’t do this,” that does not mean that that person doesn’t care about your mom. When making this tough decision, everyone should take note of his or her own mental state surrounding the situation. If someone can’t mentally, physically, or financially handle being a primary caregiver that is ok. You may find someone who is not family to take over, and that is ok, too. Keeping Mom safe and healthy is your number one goal.


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