What Can You Do When Your Elderly Parent Starts to Forget?
The realization that your parent may be slipping in cognitive function is usually gradual, but it is important to trust your instincts when things do not seem "right." You may notice an aging parent forgetting things, or not doing things as he or she always had. Perhaps your parent begins to call you with a routine question, and then calls again a short while later, with no memory of the prior conversation. Or, you notice a parent struggling to keep track of his or her finances, or failing to stock food in the home. Stories of the occasional "accident" become more frequent. A pet is neglected; the toast catches fire; the blender is inexplicably discovered under the bed. A trip to the market results in a phone call that the parent has lost their way home. You cannot control your parent's decline in cognitive function, but you can take steps to put some basic protections in place for the difficult journey that may be ahead. Your parent will need help; this means that legal papers will have to be signed to authorize you to act on his or her behalf. A skilled elder lawyer is the place to start.
An elder law attorney will recommend that your parent sign a durable power of attorney, which is one of the basic tools used to preserve your ability to assist your parent, even after he or she becomes mentally or physically incapacitated. This power of attorney allows your parent to grant you authority to act for him or her in a broad array of matters, from handling finances and real estate to filing tax returns. If done correctly, a durable power of attorney will remain in effect after your parent is no longer capable of handling his or her affairs, and should be carefully tailored to meet present and future needs. Without this document, a court may have to appoint someone (a conservator - and perhaps not a family member) to manage the financial affairs of a person who has become incapacitated.
Your parent should also sign a document appointing you or other family members as health care representatives to make medical decisions for your parent if he or she becomes incapable of directing medical care. Important end-of-life wishes could be memorialized in writing as well (the use of advance directives or a "living will"), to avoid the possibility of unwanted medical interventions in situations where recovery will not be possible.
As many of us know, the cost of long term care is very high. In Connecticut, the average cost of nursing home care is now approximately $11,000 - $12,000 per month. Home care could cost at least $200 per day or more. Your parent may wish to conserve his or her assets. In order to prevent your parent's home and savings from being dissipated to pay for long term care, expert advice regarding Medicaid (Title 19) is more important than ever. New rules have made it more difficult to qualify for Medicaid, but with proper legal advice, significant asset preservation may be possible.
We recommend that if your parent is aging, you seek the advice of an experienced elder lawyer, even before actual help appears necessary. Advance planning is the most effective way to prepare for the inevitable crisis (in health or in finances) and avoid personal or financial hardship. You want to avoid emergency or crisis planning, as many times such delay can push valuable options out of reach. But remember, it is never too late to benefit from the advice of an attorney, even if a short or long term crisis has occurred.
Elder law has become a highly specialized area of practice. When a parent begins to lose capacity, there is vast personal and financial risk at stake - so take the time to find an expert to assist you. One place to begin the search for a qualified elder law attorney is to visit the web site of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) www.naela.org.
Jane L. Harness also practices in the areas of elder law and estate planning. She counsels families in the area of estate planning with an emphasis on Medicaid asset preservation for the elderly and the disabled. She is a member of NAELA. Jane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org