There is no easy way for a family to deal with a senior grappling with a cognitive mental disease like dementia or Alzheimer’s. Like any health problems faced by loved ones, a family’s initial reaction is to try to get the senior the help they need. However, each New York elder law attorney at our firm understands that cognitive conditions are tricky, because the injury is not physical and often the senior may not be fully aware that they are even suffering from the problem at all.
One elder law advocate recently discussed this challenge in response to a reader question explaining her family’s difficulty dealing with her mother’s dementia. As published in the L.A. Times, the reader revealed that her 82-year old mother, who has dementia, began accusing the family of spying on her. As a result, the mother admitted to her doctor that she wouldn’t share anything about her health with them. The family has been left wondering what to do to help their ailing matriarch get through this difficult phase. Many local families visit our New York elder law estate planning attorneys with the same concerns about helping relative with cognitive issues.
For one thing, in many cases a doctor will not be willing (or legally able) to discuss the mother’s condition without legal documents in place. This is particularly true when the doctor suspects that there may be a family rift. Creating those legal documents is a large part of the work done by elder law estate planning lawyers. The documents help ensure that the senior can receive help with their legal, financial, and healthcare decisions. Creating a trust may allow a third party to manage an ailing senior’s assets. A durable Power of Attorney allows financial decisions to be made by another. Health Care Proxies are needed to make key medical decision when another is unable to do it on their own.
As the advocate notes in the article, “Having all of those documents together is the biggest gift a person could [give] their family and friends.”
Without these documents in place, the only other option is usually guardianship proceedings. This process is expensive, time-consuming, and rife with uncertainty. It should be avoided whenever possible.
Family members who are able to make financial and medical decisions for their ailing senior can also ensure that various long-term care planning is done as well. For example, depending on the senior’s assets, setting up a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT) may be important to protect assets from long-term care costs down the road.
Of course, the process of getting these legal affairs together before a senior suffers from a cognitive mental problem is always ideal, because it is a much more arduous process after something like dementia has set in. However, even if a senior is already suffering from dementia, there may still be time to have the planning conduced. Dementia is a progressive disease that, while getting worse over time, still leaves the individual with moments of lucidity and reason. Catching a senior at that time and having frank discussions about the need to conduct proper planning is important. At the same time, even if the senior agrees to conduct the planning, he or she must be competent enough at the time of the legal transaction to legally make decisions these issues. It is a fine balance that is tough to gauge perfectly, particularly when dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
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