Watching a parent age can be very difficult. The person that you once looked to for guidance and support is now looking to you for the same thing. It can be very disconcerting, and sad, but it is a normal fact of life and of course you will want to do everything you can to make life easier for your mom or dad.
One simple thing you can do is have them sign a power-of-attorney("POA"). This document will give you (or some other trusted person) the power to act in your parent's place to manage his or her affairs. This can save a lot of time and anxiety if/when your parent becomes incapacitated.
My father-in-law is in decent health, but we have noticed that his memory is slipping considerably. He already has me take care of most of his finances (paying bills, filing taxes, etc.), but I do all of that online and there is no actual form giving me authority to do so.
He agreed to sign a durable power-of-attorney, which means that at any time my husband (the "agent") can step in and take care of any of his financial matters. This gives all of us peace of mind in case my father-in-law (the "principal") declines to a point where he is unable to perform the functions himself. It will save us a lot of time and paperwork trying to get the authority to take over his affairs.
There is also an ordinary POA, which becomes inoperative if the parent becomes incapacitated (I guess the reasoning here is that the parent would not be of sound mind if s/he wanted to revoke the POA). We opted for the durable POA because we want the document in place continuously and my father-in-law is unconcerned about giving his son access to all of his finances. In other words, he trusts us!
Note: all POAs terminate upon death, or by court order, and they can be revoked at any time (but if the person is incapacitated, that would be difficult to do).
The POA can be "general", as in our case, or "limited" if the powers are only to do one specific thing, such as sell a piece of property. There can be more than one agent, and the principal can decide if s/he wants the agents to act jointly (all must sign to make any moves) or severally (only one must sign). In families where there is a lack of trust---they do exist!---requiring that all sign jointly may alleviate some of the problems.
There is also a "springing" POA that only goes into effect upon a specific triggering event (for instance, the incapacitation of the parent).
There's lots to learn and think about, but if you have an aging parent and they are open to discussing their future financial affairs, a POA might be a good idea. A great article to get you started is here: http://www.agingcare.com/Articles/what-is-durable-power-of-attorney-140233.htm
Forms are available online and could be filled out without the help of an attorney, but each state has different guidelines so it might be a good idea to consult an attorney for assistance.
Here's a subject that is sure to get a lot of groans: Living Wills. Yep, not many people want to think about what could happen if they become incapacitated, but it's an important part of your overall "health" and should not be overlooked.
Living wills and other advance directives are written, legal instructions regarding your preferences for medical care if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance directives guide choices for doctors and caregivers if you're terminally ill, seriously injured, in a coma, in the late stages of dementia or near the end of life. (http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/consumer-health/in-depth/living-wills/art-20046303)
I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a written living will and designate someone to be your durable power of attorney (also called health care proxy) to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so! It doesn't matter if you're a young college whippersnapper with the world ahead of you (I'm talking to you Kristen!), or an old lady like me (LOL). These are our bodies, and we should be the ones to decide which medical treatments we do and do not want to be subjected to.
The advantage of having these documents is that they clearly state your wishes when you are not able to speak for yourself. Of course, you'll need to discuss the documents with your health care provider and loved ones ahead of time so that everyone is on the same page, and make sure they have a copy. If you do that, your loved ones can avoid a lot of anxiety and confusion if you are unconscious and in a coma. Remember Terri Schiavo? There was a lot of speculation about what Terri would have wanted, but no written instructions.
As some of you know, I'm a paralegal, so now is the time for me to tell you to go hire a lawyer to assist with these documents. Good advice, sure, but if you can't or won't use a lawyer, you're in luck! You can easily find tons of information online and even get forms that are specific to your state. Google is your friend, or try here: http://uslwr.com/formslist.shtm
You will find that the forms are not that difficult to fill out. So do yourself a huge favor, take an hour or so to get your forms, fill them out, discuss with your family, and then fax them over to your healthcare provider. You just never know......
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