One of the common laments caregivers share in Your Turn to Care concerns the issue of planning for the senior years, or lack of it.
Many of us begin planning for our children's future from the moment they're born. We plan for their physical care, their play-dates, their education. It's all part of what we signed up for as parents. We devote countless hours and dollars to ensure their launch into adulthood provides as much promise as possible. We hope our golden years find us reflecting back on a job well done, and looking ahead to enjoying a lively, enriching retirement experience.
For many of us, those plans for a good life may become sidelined when we are suddenly thrust into the role of caregiver for a parent or a spouse - a job we did not sign up for. Taking care of others, putting their needs before our own, is once again at the top of the list. In this new role of caring for a loved one who is an adult, we often know very little about our options as caregivers. Often, we may not know our loved ones' needs or desires for care, especially if they are unable to express themselves clearly.
It is critical that we plan for the care of our parent(s) or spouse in much the same way we plan for our children: ahead of time. Early planning and preparation helps ease the stress and upset of responding to a crisis when we are likely to be overwhelmed and not thinking clearly. It is never too early to start planning and many find it helpful to consult a lawyer who specializes in elder law issues.
What Can I Do Now?
- Establish your loved one's wishes at a time when they can still express their desires.
- Discuss important, practical and financial information such as the location of documents, gaining access to their bank accounts, and any financial responsibilities they may want you to handle in the future.
- Consider becoming your loved one's agent under a durable power of attorney for health care and/or for asset management, if they become incapable of caring for themselves.
- Understand what your loved one's insurance plan calls for in the event of hospitalization or hospice care.
- Be honest with your loved one about your feelings regarding their wishes, and allow for them to offer their advice, should they be able to do so.
- If your loved one is in fairly good physical health, but is mentally compromised and you are concerned they could be victimized, contact local agencies that deal with legal protection of the elderly.
- Find out what financial protection is offered for your loved one when it comes to Social Security and pension benefits. Early planning will put you in a better position to investigate options such as long term care insurance, and potential eligibility for programs like Medicaid (Medi-Cal, in California).
- If private health insurance is available, find out what additional services may be accessible through the insurance plan. Some plans provide social workers, medication management, home health care, and hospice care.
Do I need an Eldercare Attorney?
A lawyer can help you establish an estate plan for your relative. This may be a combination of documents, including powers of attorney, a will and/or a trust. It is critical that you do this as soon as possible to take advantage of important, time-sensitive estate and financial planning that may help you qualify your loved one for certain benefit programs. It is important to remember that your loved one can only prepare these important legal documents if he or she is mentally competent to do so.
Depending on the extent of your loved one's incapacity, the lawyer may recommend conservatorship proceedings to give you authority to make personal and financial decisions, including an estate plan.
What is conservatorship?
A conservatorship is a legal court proceeding when a guardian and protector is appointed by a judge to manage the financial affairs and/or daily life of a person whose capacity is diminished because of physical or mental limitations, or old age. The conservator may only oversee the "estate" (meaning financial affairs), or may also manage the health care or living arrangements of the "conservatee."
Typically a relative or friend petitions the local superior court for appointment of a specific conservator, with written notice served on the potential conservatee (the person who needs help). The "proposed conservatee" is interviewed by a court-appointed investigator to determine need, desire and understanding the person has, as well as the suitability of the proposed conservator: Is it a good and appropriate match? An open hearing is held before the appointment of a conservator is made. The conservator is required to make regular accountings which must be approved by the court.
Why is a Living Will important?
An Advance Medical Directive (living will) can provide end-of-life decisions for your loved one should they become terminally ill. This important document can tell a doctor just how much or how little medical care the person wishes to receive. Most health plans can provide this form to you free of charge. It may be completed with or without the assistance of a lawyer and the person completing an advance directive must be mentally competent to do so.
Dawn Clark-Johnson is a 1984 graduate of the U.S.C. School of Law, and has maintained a probate and elder law practice in Los Angeles, California for 27 years.