The Paperwork of Aging: All about Living Wills, POAs, and Estate Planning

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It was her worst nightmare. Karen’s Aunt Marge was in the Emergency Room, and Karen was in the ER waiting room after a midnight phone call from Aunt Marge’s neighbor. No one would tell Karen anything, despite the fact that Aunt Marge has no living relatives. Karen’s stomach churned thinking of Aunt Marge, lying in a hospital bed—alone, afraid, and in pain.

Thanks to HIPPA laws that protect patient privacy, getting information about patients in the hospital can be incredibly difficult. And tight privacy laws may prohibit caregivers from learning even the most basic information about a loved one’s finances, like the due date of a mortgage payment. While these laws help protect elderly adults from being preyed on, they can make senior care incredibly difficult for caregivers like Karen—and you. This is why caregivers must be proactive with the paperwork of aging.

Mom may not be in poor health now, but things like strokes and heart attacks strike suddenly. Having the right paperwork in place means that, should something happen to Mom, you can talk to her doctors, pay her bills, access her health information, and make sound decisions on her behalf.

Durable Power of Attorney

The most important paperwork for anyone responsible for the care of a senior is the durable power of attorney (POA). This document gives you the ability to act on an elderly adult’s behalf should that senior be incapacitated in some way.

There are two versions of a POA.

  1. A Financial POA allows a caregiver to take care of a senior’s bills, access checking accounts, and even sell possessions if needed. Whoever is chosen for this position should be good with money, organized, very trustworthy, possess a strong sense of ethics, and understand how the senior would want his or her finances managed. This person should be able to weigh the consequences of financial decisions and make sound choices.

  2. A Medical POA allows a caregiver to make healthcare decisions. This person can talk to an elderly adult’s doctors, learn about that senior’s health, and choose courses of treatment.  Whoever Mom chooses for her Medical POA should be able to communicate well with medical staff, weigh different medical options, and be able to make decisions in a logical way.

Living Will

The living will is a form that allows older adults to make decisions ahead of time about what would occur were they to be rendered permanently unconscious or close to death. This document allows Mom to decide whether or not she wants to be resuscitated if she were to stop breathing, whether she wants a feeding tube, or whether she wants to live on a ventilator. These decisions are not fun to consider, but having Mom fill out a living will allows her to remain in control even if she is unconscious. A living will allows family members to know under what circumstances Mom would want her life support removed. A living will is slightly different from a Medical POA because the living will simply discusses end of life issues.

Estate Planning

Many people assume that their elderly loved ones already have their will and other financial documents in order. However, it never hurts to ask the question. If Mom hasn’t thought about it, you may want to take her to an estate attorney. The attorney will be able to walk Mom through the process. She does not have to have everything planned out perfectly because the estate attorney will advise her and help clarify things in her mind.

As Mom gets older, having the paperwork of aging lined up and in order will simplify things if she were to get ill. Remember that being named in Mom’s paperwork is not a popularity contest. Do not take it personally if she chooses someone else. She may realize that your brother’s religious views are more in line with hers, and that you are a better financial planner than your sister. These skills are what Mom is thinking of when she’s planning for the future, and this is no reflection of her feelings for her family. Be proactive and encourage Mom to visit an elder care attorney to arrange for this paperwork.