Caring for Elderly Parents: Are You Ready?

A recent telephone call from my client went something like this:

Julie, my mom kicked me out of her house again. She was screaming at me for over an hour, she was calling me names, and threatening to “kick my *&$.” She is not taking her medications and will not let me help her. She will not let the nurse in to help Dad. She doesn’t remember being in court or that the judge told her she needs to cooperate with me. What do I do?

To many of you, this sounds remote from your family situation. To me, this is an all-too-common situation that I hear about or see regularly. Happy, stable families are thrown into chaos and strife when an elderly parent’s condition starts to affect his/her memory, personality, and the ability to manage him/herself.

A little background on Mom: She is a 76-year-old woman living in her home with her ailing husband who falls constantly. Mom cannot assist dad with his care because of her advanced age and health status. Mom has a host of unmanaged conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, and possible depression. The conditions are not “unmanaged” due to family members’ failure to help her or due to lack of access to acceptable medical care. They are unmanaged because mom is declining, and that decline is negatively affecting her personality and her ability to accept help.

You see, Mom doesn’t want a court-appointed guardian. Mom doesn’t want to be labeled an “incapacitated individual” or have a judge tell her that she doesn’t have control over herself anymore. Despite the fact that Mom shows up at a doctor’s office and thinks she is at the Secretary of State to get her driver’s license, she appears to understand what a guardianship means. And it throws her into a rage. The rage is so real, so visceral, that my client cannot do her job as guardian, cannot keep her mom properly medicated and safe. The problem also prevents Dad from getting the care he needs. We have had to appear in court no less than five times in the past six months to hash out Mom’s objections to the guardianship. What has been the cost? In addition to thousands of dollars in legal fees (both for Mom’s attorney and my firm’s fees for the client) and hours upon hours of sitting in court, these proceedings have caused an incredible amount of stress for Mom and the rest of the family; stress that contributes to Mom’s decline and affects the family’s ability to function. When families should be spending time together and coordinating proper care with doctors, they are instead forced to gather medical reports, spend time with (and pay) attorneys, air their family business before a judge and strangers, and testify “against” each other.

Could all of this have been prevented? We can’t prevent Mom’s medical conditions, and sometimes despite the best planning, probate court intervention is necessary. BUT, if estate planning tools were in place before Mom declined – such as a patient advocate and power of attorney – the likelihood of needing probate court proceedings would have been much less. If Mom had signed the proper documents when she was competent, it is likely she would never have had to appear before a judge or see the words “incapacitated individual” next to her name. It’s possible she would not have realized or have become concerned that she was receiving extra help from her family members. Care could have been managed more seamlessly, without the stress of such an overt (but necessary) means to wrestle control away from her. Finally, by spending a little time and money on an estate plan early on, this particular family might have saved over five times that upfront cost in attorney fees and hours spent in court.

No one wants anger and conflict to engulf a loved one’s precious remaining years. You can take action now to minimize that possibility:

  • Children, talk to your parents today. Ask them if they have patient advocate and power of attorney documents in place. If they do, find out where they are located and ensure they are updated. Patient advocate documents should be updated every five years. Powers of attorney should be updated every two years. If your parents do not have an estate plan, encourage them to contact an attorney now.
  • Parents, help your children help you by preparing your estate plan. Let them know that one is in place and where they can find it when they need it. Keep your estate plan current (see #1).

Life goes along just fine…until it doesn’t. Will you be ready?