My mother, Alma was an exceptionally well-organized person. I guess that is a prerequisite if you are going to have 16 children and not end up in the loony-bin! Seriously, she was tremendously busy my entire life; she belonged to church groups, attended weekly bridge games, traveled with my father (an accomplished lawyer), and perhaps most amazingly, had most of her children prior to the use of permanent press and microwave ovens! When I was ten years old, my mother returned to work. First as a part-time "Kelly Girl", (if you can believe that term!) which was a temp agency for secretarial jobs. After she built her confidence doing that, she went to work full-time with the Chicago Board of Education. Can you imagine? After 34 years of babies, teenagers and the myriad "joys" of a large complicated family, she went back to work full time. When most of us would want to settle in on the couch with a large box of chocolate, or to take a 3-year nap, she started taking the train downtown to work. And she absolutely loved it. She was a role model for us of a dedicated employee who took great pride in her work. I do not think I ever heard her complain about going to work.
With all those responsibilities she still found the time to keep her personal papers in meticulous order. I think it was an extension of her being a thoughtful person. She never wanted to inconvenience anyone else. She knew that eventually her children would be left to sift through everything and she made it easy. Alma even started labeling treasured items. She would put the name of which of us was to get that particular object. She started doing that well over twenty years before she died.
But I know that not everyone is so lucky. Many people that I have spoken with have aging parents who have dementia or had a devastating stroke before their personal affairs, were in order. This makes the role of caregiver so much more stressful. The following are 5 key things to do with your parents while they are well and capable. Preferably, these things will be done years before you can imagine being in the position of helping them with their finances or medical issues. At whatever stage you find yourself, start now.
1. Start simply with things that may not cause a lot of emotional upheavals. Everyone's family dynamic is unique, and you will adjust these suggestions to suit the personalities of the people involved. But frequently, adult children feel hesitant to broach these subjects with parents for fear of sounding morbid or intruding on their privacy. Start by just asking how they have things organized. and try to learn:
Do they have a personal attorney?
Do they have a safety deposit box?
Where is the information about insurance policies, mortgages, bank accounts?
Do they keep a list of passwords to accounts?
These are some basic things that make things much less traumatic if you know about them in advance. I call this "Taking the Tour" to get familiar with aspects of your parent's lives about which you may not have a lot of information.
2. Discuss the advantages of getting a Power of Attorney for Finances as well as a Healthcare Power of Attorney. Both of these documents only go into effect in the event that your parent/loved one is unable to make his own decisions. They are able to be canceled at any time prior to that, and your parent/loved one can require that their physician certifies that they are unable to make decisions prior to the POA taking effect. There is great information on the AARP website regarding both financial and healthcare powers of attorney: AARP POA Info.
This can be an emotional discussion. I recommend that you consider framing it in a non-threatening way. Ask your parent/loved one to help you. Let them know that these concerns weigh on you and that you want to be able to do the best for them should something unplanned happen. Frequently, if both of your parents are alive, they will leave it up to one another. Not good enough! Of course, if your mother is in good health and something happens to your dad, she will be able to deal with the finances, and healthcare decisions. But she may not be in the best of health, or she may be emotionally overwhelmed. Ask that the POA papers be completed with them being the 1st choice for each other, but that they name a backup person who can step in if necessary.
3. Learn about how to manage someone else's money. It may seem like a no-brainer. You manage your own money, why should it be different with your loved one's finances? Well, it is. It gets complicated especially when you go into it without advanced planning.
A fabulous resource for this planning is from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. On the website you will find information that is very helpful. It even has specific information for certain states. And it details how you need separate documentation in order to access your loved one's Social Security or Veteran's Benefits. It is important to know about these issues because a general financial Power of Attorney will not be valid for these government benefits.
4. Start talking about goals and values regarding healthcare. Everyone over the age of 70 knows they have fewer years ahead of them than behind them. You may be surprised to learn that your loved one has been thinking about end-of-life issues more than you imagine. It is very common that aging loved ones do not start the conversation because they do not want to upset the people they love. In reality, talking about the end of life is a gift that you can give someone. If it is regarding your own preferences, it is a gift to let your loved ones know what your preferences are so that they are not left wondering if they did the right thing. If it is a conversation that you need to have with a parent or other loved one about her choices, that too is a gift. You can give them the gift of letting them remain in control of their lives even at the end of life. One of the best resources I have seen is the Prepare for Your Care program (PrepareForYourCare.org). It is a wonderful website that can walk you through the steps to clarifying and understanding your loved one's goals around healthcare choices.
5. Keep everyone "in the loop." Be sure that other family members know about the conversations you are having with your parents. This is an ongoing process, not a one and done. Priorities change over the years and what your parents wants when they are age 75 may be very different as they approach 85. Be sure to revisit the discussion especially as new health issues present themselves. Anytime that there is a serious diagnosis (heart failure, kidney disease, cancer for example) it is best to talk about your loved one's priorities early in the process. And, of course anytime that your loved one is admitted to the hospital or is scheduled for surgery you will want to verify that you have an understanding of their healthcare goals.
Honest discussions and some simple planning can make the last chapter of your loved one's life more secure and content. Give them the gift of starting the discussion, and use the resources mentioned here to help you.