Two weeks ago, my friend Jerry’s 89-year-old mother fell down a staircase. I know, horrifying. Miraculously, she suffered no broken bones. But her cuts, bruises, and wrenched muscles will take a long time to heal. She’s in a lot of pain, on top of the usual limitations from a past shoulder injury and, well, just being 89.
That’s bad enough. But Jerry’s father has dementia, which has progressed rapidly of late, and his mother has refused, up until now, to engage any sort of day-to-day home care service or extra help, like someone to wash dishes, shop for groceries, change the linens – anything. She has a weekly housekeeper who dusts, vacuums, and cleans the kitchens and bathrooms. But that’s it.
Jerry has been begging his mother to get in-home help, and begging her to tell him what plans his parents have in place for emergencies. But he’s gotten nowhere. So when this happened, thank god she was OK, but Jerry and his wife? They were blindsided, panicked, and scrambling.
The Folly of Elderly Parents Who Stonewall Their Children, Who Will Need to Help Them One Day
And here’s another layer; until a week ago, my friend and his wife had no idea – absolutely none – what legal documents his parents might or might not have in place for managing their financial affairs and their health and personal care should an emergency arise. They’d asked, and asked, and asked. They’d offered to review documents they might have, to sort papers, to assist with whatever might be needed to put safeguards and backup plans like healthcare directives and powers of attorney in place. But all he got when he asked was a vague and almost angry, “We’ve taken care of it,” or “I don’t know, I think we’ve done that,” or “Well, you’re the executor of our estate when we die,” as if that’s all that he needed to know. Up until six months ago, he couldn’t even get the name of their attorney out of them.
Great. So all he could glean was that when someday they’re both gone, he could expect to go on a search through their home to try to find any documents or records they may or may not have, that will give him the direction and authority to do what needs to be done. Not a very pretty prospect. But I guess he at least knew that he was supposedly the executor of their estate, so that’s a start, right?
But not a good enough start, because what was preying on Jerry’s mind was the what-ifs before they’re gone. What if one or both of them became incapacitated due to illness or accident – say like the one-in-a-million chance that his mother would go tumbling down the stairs, for god’s sake? Or the very real possibility that his otherwise impressively healthy and fit 93-year-old father would develop dementia?
For Jerry’s parents, it seems, the idea that either one of them would need help, for any reason whatsoever, has been unthinkable right up to this moment; just plain not gonna happen. So they wouldn’t talk about it. Ever. I think that even now, they (or his mother now, since his father is no longer cognizant of what’s going on) continues to cling to the idea that they’re the parents. So they’re in charge. So there’s no need to reveal any estate planning details to their 60-something-year-old son or his attorney wife. Like, it’s none of their business, and anyway what would they know? They’re just kids.
The Burden of Not Knowing
This stubborn insistence on stonewalling their children all these years has weighed those children down with uncertainty and worry. And it all came to a head when Jerry’s mother went body surfing down the staircase two weeks ago.
Thank god Jerry’s brother Jim and his wife live near his parents. Jim took off two days of work and provided 24-hour care for the two of them while Jerry and his wife booked flights and arranged leaves of absence from work and got themselves over there. Then they took over.
I won’t go into all the details of what transpired over the ensuing week, except to say that Jerry and his wife made multiple phone calls, had multiple discussions while his mother lay in pain, paid change fees and extension fees for their flights and car rental because no way were they going to get anything in place in the time they originally planned for their stay, they reviewed documents after they finally were located and produced by a family friend, they visited facilities, they conducted interviews, they mapped out strategies, or at least tried to while his mother still insisted she only needed help at night – all while Jerry’s father needed continuous monitoring and care 24 hours a day. And finally – finally – Jerry and his wife were able to see and determine that his parents’ estate plan is all in order and contains all of the documents that any good estate plan should have, such as a trust, which has now been put in his mother’s control since his father developed dementia (Jerry had been worrying about that for many months, since she’s planning to sell the house), a health care directive for each of them, and powers of attorney for both legal and health matters. So after years of unnecessary worry, my friend finally knows that all of this is in place. And he was finally able to make copies of the documents that he will need, without delay, should something further happen.
A Power of Attorney Is Useless Unless It’s In the Designated Person’s Possession
Let me stress this now: It does no good to create a power of attorney, designating someone to take care of matters for you if you cannot take care of matters yourself, if the named individual neither knows about the power of attorney nor possesses a copy of it, or at least knows where it can be located. I’m so mad that my friends have had to worry all of this time. It’s bad enough worrying about your actual parents and what may happen to them physically and mentally as they grow old, without worrying about whether you can effectively and efficiently help take care of them or their home or financial matters if need be. Don’t do that to your kids. If they’re adults, tell them where your documents are. If they’re not, then tell them who to contact should something unthinkable happen; your attorney or at least a family friend who knows what’s what. Tell your children at least the bare bones of the plans you’ve put in place for the what-ifs. And give them copies today of documents they may need in the future, or tell them who has those documents. Unless you’re afraid that your son or daughter will take his or her power of attorney straight to the bank and somehow finagle the manager into emptying your accounts without requiring any sort of proof of your incapacity, you’re safe in giving your adult children the documents now.
Plan For the What-If, and Talk To Your Kids
So the moral of the story is this: If you haven’t drawn up these kinds of estate planning documents, do it now. If you don’t have funds to pay thousands to a lawyer, ask friends or your doctor or your local elder services office for help finding an affordable attorney. NOLO, one of the web’s largest libraries of consumer-friendly legal information, has published a checklist for estate planning; click here to read and download it. And click here also for a good resource article from AARP on living trusts.
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, talk to your own children about your plans, and if they’re adults, give them copies now of the documents they may need in an emergency concerning you in the future. Sure, it’s a maudlin conversation, but it’s a gift of love and also a sign of your respect for their abilities and reliability. Sad though these thoughts may be, your children will need to have this information, because unless you and your spouse (if applicable) plan to go out in a split second from a speeding bus or a comet from outer space or whatever, there will be an emergency or difficult situation they will have to face in the future. Better to let them know now what responsibilities and powers you plan to transfer to them, so their only concern can be you, rather than what legal documents might exist and where they might find them.
I really wish for my friends that they would not have experienced the worry of the past several years nor the stress and drama of the past two weeks. I really would have preferred to hear that they’d had a depressing and even sort of boring conversation with his parents years ago about what safeguards and plans they’d put in place for emergencies and illness. Really I would. There are plenty of other places one can find drama in one’s life. This is not one I would choose for anyone I care about.
I am stepping down from my soapbox now. Thank you for listening.