This week the USA Today reminded readers of the role that family members play in catching the onset of cognitive mental diseases in seniors, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. As any New York elder law estate planning attorney can attest, these issues are of particular importance in the legal context because mental issues can affect one’s legal capacity. The ability to conduct estate planning, receive New York Medicaid help, or otherwise make prudent decisions for the future will be made more difficult if begun after dementia or Alzheimer’s has set in.
By the very nature of the condition, the one who is suffering from these issues has difficultly identifying the problem themselves. That is why a family plays a crucial role in identifying the cognition problem and addressing it. As the article notes, “dementia can sneak up on families. Its sufferers are pretty adept at covering lapses early on.” Often it is not until there is some major accident or life-threatening complication that adult children, spouses, and others become fully aware of the problem.
To combat the challenges of early detection, experts are calling on family members to be more involved. As part of the first “National Alzheimer’s Plan,” advocates are trying to raise awareness about the need for relatives to be diligent about a senior’s actions to ensure mental cognition issues are caught as soon as possible. One advocate noted, “family input should be mandatory…it’s the only way to know if the person really is eating enough and taking her medicines as she claims, and not forgetting to turn off the stove.”
In addition, there is a growing call for primary-care doctors to take a more active role in detecting dementia early. For example, in a regular visit the doctor might ask “How are you doing?” Usually the senior patient replies, “Fine,” and then the matter is dropped. This minimal discussion of basic life circumstances is too brief for the physician to have any way to ensure that the senior’s mental condition has not reached a dangerous level.
On top of that, as part of the early detection programs, government officials working on dementia and Alzheimer’s issues are trying to get families to conduct advanced planning. Having a Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy are crucial as soon as dementia is diagnosed. No one is fully prepared for the challenges that aging can bring–particularly conditions that attack the mind. No amount of financial preparation or long-term care plans can make the process easy. However, the overall stress of the situation is less taxing when steps have been taken ahead of time to ensure that sticky matters like estate preparation and proper long-term care planning are decided ahead of time.
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