When to Get Power of Attorney for Elderly Parents

By Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA

When is the best time to get power of attorney documents for elderly parents? You tried to bring up the subject in the past and elderly parents quickly closed the door on the discussion. Stories you are hearing from friends in similar situations paint a stressful picture of care for parents who failed to plan. Having the “when to get power of attorney for elderly parents discussion” is possible with the right tips to ensure success.

Until Death Do Us Part

There are times when the marital commitment of “until death do us part” becomes complicated by illness and poor health. Second marriages are common today along with surprises of life-changing diagnoses that result in caregiving responsibilities instead of desires for a worry-free retirement. Health complications are not limited to only elderly couples, many middle-aged individuals are diagnosed with multiple chronic diseases. The unexpected happens by way of car accidents, sports accidents, falls, and other catastrophes that change the state of health and ability to care for oneself. 

Thinking about what might happen with elderly parents can be worrisome. All you know as an adult child is that you don’t want to be left with a mess on your hands when something unexpected happens to mom or dad. How much consideration have you given to your own planning as an adult child who may have younger children? Power of attorney not only an elderly parent consideration, talking about power of attorney is a multi-generational consideration. 

When to get power of attorney for elderly parentsWhen to Get Power of Attorney Documents

It is my opinion that everyone over the age of 18 should have power of attorney documents. My experience of more than twenty years in the caregiving industry, half as a guardian and power of attorney, focused on managing health care and the daily care needs for elderly adults.

For individuals without power of attorney documents, the issue is often forced by completing documents in the hospital or in a nursing facility after an unexpected health emergency. When to get power of attorney for elderly parents or anyone over the age of 18 is an important life consideration that many simply do not think about. 

We are a society of youth and vitality. A society that does not find talking about aging or what happens after retirement to be a pleasant topic. Only when we are forced to give consideration to issues of aging and healthcare is when to get power of attorney for elderly parents a thought.  

If in doubt about why a medical power of attorney and a living will is important, watch this video of 30-something David Drummond, who was involved in an unexpected and life-threatening accident. David and his doctor made this video because it was David’s desire to share his story and save others from having the legal and medical system interfere with care decisions.

Over the years, there have been other stories in the press about medical and legal disagreements over decision making when legal documents were not created. Search the Internet for the names of Nancy Cruzan, Charlie Gard, Karen Ann Quinlan, and Terry Schiavo.

Needing a Power of Attorney to Go Home

One of my favorite elderly clients was “stuck” in a nursing facility. Like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, he wanted to return home but lacked the ruby red slippers to make his dream come true. In this case, the ruby red slippers were a person to accept the legal power of attorney for financial and medical to accept responsibility for and to arrange his care.

Nursing facility staff were concerned about allowing my client to leave. Threats were made to call adult protective services and the community ombudsman if no action was taken to ensure his care and safety. Believe it or not, healthcare staff have the power to and do intercede in situations where elderly adults appear unable to manage care.  Most elderly adults want to avoid nursing facility placement.

My client’s wife had passed away years earlier. There were no children. His sister, who was close to his age and did not want to accept the legal responsibility, contacted me. Documents were completed and witnessed by his family while he was in the nursing facility.

I made arrangements for him to return home and to receive care. After becoming his financial power of attorney and looking into bank accounts, I learned that there was a “friend” who was happily taking sums of money from him in return for being helpful. It was clear that this person was taking financial advantage. Without anyone else to help him, my client admitted that he felt obligated to pay the friend. Elderly in similar situations where there are no children or children may be at a distance are vulnerable to this type of predator. 

Over time, as my client needed more help with activities of daily living, we moved him to an assisted living community where he was able to spend the rest of his life. He was one of the kindest persons I have had the pleasure to meet. A thank you and a big smile accompanied each visit. Caregivers fawned over him because he made everyone who came in contact with him feel good about their efforts. 

Planning for Power of Attorney Before the Need 

I was “power of attorney in waiting” for many single individuals, spouses, and married spouses planning for future care needs. It is becoming more common for elderly parents to appoint professionals to act as power of attorney instead of adult children.

Professional fiduciaries are appointed for a variety of reasons. Parents who do not want to burden children is one reason. Another reason is to avoid family conflict that relates to favoritism. In some families, adult children who may not be appointed as power of attorney are often challenged by other children who object to the appointment. Conflict over “why were you chosen and not me,” is common. In families where conflict exists, appointing a professional is often the better choice.

Know that your parents may have other ideas about when to get power of attorney or who to appoint in this legal role. By the time the subject of when to get power of attorney for elderly parents occurs, your parents may have already appointed professionals outside of the family or may not have completed documents at all.

Having documents completed in advance of the need is important when emergencies occur. One of my middle-age power of attorney clients in waiting was in a serious, unexpected accident. I received a call from hospital staff over a holiday weekend asking for decisions about care. My contact information was in the client’s wallet as the person to call in the event of a medical emergency.

When I arrived at the hospital with my power of attorney documents, my client was lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, hooked up to breathing and feeding tubes. Machines keeping her alive were humming and beeping.  Based on prior conversations about health wishes and care, I instructed the doctors about a plan of care.  Fortunately, after a period of several weeks, the client was able to return home and recovered. 

Dying Isn’t On Our Bucket List

Had my client not initiated pre-need power of attorney documents, her care may have resulted in a medical and legal battle. The fact that she was unconscious and unable to state her wishes to medical staff placed her care in a difficult situation. It was possible that she could have died.  

Taking this one step further, neither Prince or Aretha Franklin, both popular in the music industry, had wills. Prince’s death was somewhat unexpected although not a surprise to those who knew him. Aretha Franklin had cancer and still did not make plans.

We live in a society that denies aging and planning for death. These conversations are difficult and can be unpleasant. How can adult children initiate these conversations with elderly parents?

Initiating Difficult Power of Attorney Discussions

Talking about health, care planning, money, and legal issues are hot potato subjects similar to parents having the sex talk with adolescent children. These are conversations that are uncomfortable but practical when one considers the effect of not having the documents. 

What happens when mom and dad have always been fiercely independent? No discussions of legal or financial matters occurred. Fear exists by adult children that raising the subject may result in a family battle. Many adult children are not sure about what planning parents have or have not done and are afraid to ask.

The opposite also occurs. Elderly parents want to talk about health, care planning, money, and legal issues. Sometimes adult children want to avoid the subject as if not talking about it will avoid the inevitable. Talking about end of life and death is not a pleasant subject. It is a necessary subject.

Real Life Benefits of Having Power of Attorney Documents

In my family, my mother began experiencing health issues in her 40’s. She wanted to and did talk about everything I believe because of her own personal experience with other family members. Because of the severity of her health concerns, the doctor convinced my mother that power of attorney documents and a will were a necessity.

I remember the day as if it happened yesterday.  Sitting at the kitchen table in my house, my mother told me that she and dad had finalized their burial plans. I burst out in tears, not wanting to talk about the subject of death.

Mom described every last detail of the plans that were made. She placed a blue dress and a brown suit in their bedroom closet. Flowers and music were chosen. My brother, a Franciscan priest, would preside over both services. Everything was paid for in advance so that we would not be rushing around at the time of their death.

Also confirmed was the completion of estate planning documents for medical and financial power of attorney, living wills and a will. The name of the attorney was in the phone book at my parent’s home. Copies of the documents were in the safety deposit box.

As uncomfortable as this conversation was, my mom did the family a favor. When she died, I appreciated the foresight she had to make these plans. Her planning allowed us to be together as a family to grieve her loss rather than to be running around making funeral arrangements. This planning also eliminated any uncertainty about her wishes. 

Years later in my career as a medical power of attorney and personal representative for clients I initiated the difficult conversations. We discussed wishes for medical treatment, in-home care, assisted living care, nursing home and end of life care. Discussions occurred about which family members might disagree with my legal appointment so that conflict at the time of need might be avoided.

Pre-planning of burials and cremations were discussed and completed for this same reason. Family arguments at the time of death about what a parent would or would not have wanted are common. Having these discussions early before serious health issues occurring was logical for me because of my legal responsibility and because of the personal experience I had with the death of both of my parents.

Beginning the Power of Attorney Discussion

One of the best ways to initiate discussions about health, care, money, and estate planning about power of attorney documents is to talk about self-planning. The idea about when to get power of attorney for aging parents is translatable to the idea of getting power of attorney for the adult child.

If you have children or if you are single and an accident happens, who will make your medical and financial decisions? How much thought have you given to drafting estate documents that include medical and financial power of attorney, a living will, and a will? Planning for your future legal needs is the perfect opportunity to talk to elderly parents about when to get power of attorney.

Let your elderly parents know that you are planning for yourself. Make the assumption their plans are completed. You will quickly realize the state of progress made when you ask them which law firm they used, how they made decisions about medical care, and desires for extensive care listed in living wills. Parents may not have made any plans. 

Taking a Disinterested Approach

Approaching the subject of when to get power of attorney for elderly parents as a disinterested party relieves the pressure of parents believing that the adult child asking the questions wants to be appointed. The first goal of the discussion is to find out about executed documents.   

If documents have been executed, let elderly parents know that you are interested in knowing about their wishes for care as you are also considering your wishes. Ask about the considerations identified to make decisions. Conversations about aging, declining health, care wishes, and end of life are easier to have when no health issues and decisions are pressing.

Talk about who your parents believe will be the caregiver or helper when needs exist. Is the assumption of your parent that you will be the caregiver? Is this a practical or an impractical plan? Is an alternative plan needed?

The time of when to get power of attorney for elderly parents is when this discussion occurs—the present time is a perfect time. Waiting serves no purpose for your parents or for you to complete documents. 

If elderly parents do not have power of attorney documents completed, suggest that you complete them now. Offer to use different attorney firms to maintain confidentiality. Make the idea of when to get power of attorney documents for an elderly parent a family planning effort. 

Talk with your children and who you might appoint as power of attorney about the same subject. My mother’s willingness to take the lead in these conversations compared to the discomfort we all felt talking about the inevitable was a blessing.

Opening the Door to Closer Family Relationships

Initiating the conversation about when to get power of attorney for elderly parents may establish closer family relationships. Life becomes so busy that we do not make time to talk about subjects that become relevant and necessary as we age.

The clock confirms that we are all aging, time moves forward, the sun rises and sets each day. Avoiding conversations about power of attorney may result in unexpected situations and poor care. While talking about death may be uncomfortable, becoming involved in disagreements about care is worse.

Open the door to better quality family relationships by making time to discuss when to get power of attorney for elderly parents and yourself. Give all involved peace of mind that if and when life situations will change, plans are in place to manage the changes.

Choosing the Right Power of Attorney

As decisions are made to appoint powers of attorney, it is important to be certain that the persons appointed understand their roles and responsibilities. Being a power of attorney is a serious responsibility.

Managing financial matters and making life and death decisions are part of the responsibility. Make certain that the individual appointed is committed and has some experience with financial or healthcare matters. At the time support is needed, advocacy is an important quality of a power of attorney. An individual who lives at a distance may not be the best choice due to the on the ground responsibilities and contact that is beneficial. 

Appoint successors if the first named power of attorney changes their mind or is unavailable. Review and update your documents when changes in life circumstances occur. There are many important considerations to discuss with your estate planning attorney. Involve a care consultant and a financial planner in these discussions if possible so that a solid plan is in place. 

Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, CG, CSA is a national caregiving expert, advocate, and speaker who solves caregiving problems. Since 1999, she has been a direct service provider as a court-appointed guardian, power of attorney, and care manager. In response to the need for accessible, accurate, reliable, and trustworthy information Pamela offers online caregiving support and programming to solve caregiving problems, advance healthcare literacy, and promote self-advocacy. She collaborates with professionals in the areas of estate planning, elder law, and probate, financial planning, and healthcare to raise awareness of and sensitivity to family caregiving and healthcare issues. 

© 2019 Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

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