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Confronting the Slow Demise of an Ailing Parent

Confronting the Slow Demise of an Ailing Parent

When my father had the stroke that hastened his death, I immediately made a bleary-eyed 3AM drive to the emergency room to be by his side. Moments after arriving to the hospital and checking in with the attending ER physician, I got back in my car and drove to my father’s dark and empty house to rifle through his personal belongings. No, I wasn’t seizing this opportunity to pilfer or snoop through my father’s possessions, I was looking for invaluable paperwork and documents that would give me the much needed legal authority to make decisions about what was left of my father’s life. Thanks to my father’s good planning and knack for organization, I was able to find his do not resuscitate document (DNR) and durable power of attorney papers, and return promptly to the hospital. Without these, his stay in the hospital, and his ultimate demise a few days later would have been fraught with much more hardship and confusion than necessary.

This was many years ago, but I am reminded of this fateful night after coming upon less of an article, and more of a public service piece published by the New York Times this past week, concerning taking care of ailing parents with going broke (or crazy). According to the noteworthy piece written by Walecia Konrad, About 30 percent of adult children in the United States contribute financially to their parents’ care for everything from uncovered medical expenses to making sure the refrigerator is stocked each week, and this responsibility often blindsides adult children with a great financial burden that they never saw coming. Add to this all of the emotional pain and overwhelm that comes with caring for an ill parent or a parent in decline, and you have the makings for all manner of personal stress and potential ruin. Many adult children, desperate to do whatever they can to keep a parent alive or at least comfortable in their final years, will unwittingly go into massive amounts of debt to do so.

In the article Konrad notes that there are there are numerous non-profit and government programs available to help aid in the care of an elderly or ailing parent. In addition she pinpoints three crucial steps toward getting your parents’ affairs (and your own) in order before disaster strikes:

1. The first is plainly obvious, but often times the most difficult: have a conversation with your parent(s) about their finances. This is often a very awkward and upsetting for everyone involved, but is highly necessary and will lessen the pain down the road. Try to reassure your parent(s) that you are not trying to take control of their finances, but you are simply trying to make sure that they have everything they need, and that you have a deep understanding of their wishes.

2. Make sure all their paperwork is there and in order. In an emergency, you will need to act on your parent’s behalf and therefore you (or another reliable family member) will have to hold legal authority. They will need to have signed a durable power of attorney and/or a DNR (depending on their wishes and beliefs). Also, a durable power of attorney for health care, and a living will is highly advisable. These forms are often available at local senior centers.

3. Talk about the prospect of hiring a live-in nurse or someone that could provide geriatric care, if needed. Again, like number one, this is often a difficult conversation to have, but will help in gaining a better understanding of the needs of your parents, as well as their wishes.

I encourage everyone with thoughts and/or experiences on the matter to chime in and share information with other readers who may be struggling with similar issues. The more valuable information, the better.

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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10:59PM PST on Mar 1, 2014

Thanks for sharing.

8:53PM PDT on Aug 31, 2011

I'm I can't tell you how frightened at the prospect of having these conversations with my parents.

2:12AM PST on Nov 23, 2009

You don't know what incompetence is until you've lived with it like I have. I don't have the strength to fax the power of attorneys to two creditors. I just don't have it. Mom gets numbers confused and money confused and takes off to the store when I'm sleeping during the day which I often do from the medication I take. I cannot get a carer. She came back with no cat food saying she only had 58 cents when she had 58 dollars on her. I had to get in my car with my bathrobe on and drive her to the store. Then she comes out with the wrong catfood. I had to convince her to go in and get the right food which she finally did. I don't think it's alzheimers'. She started to lose it long ago. Sometimes she's incredible and other times seems to say and do weird things. We were in a snack bar and all of a sudden she said loudly to me "I hate you". People pretended not to notice. She feels better when she's taking care of me. I've adjusted to my life because my father taught me about survival, being from generations in the military having survived combat. Mom is a survivor also. No therapy or medication for her. It's useless to try to get her to take it. She's good with the cats, thank goodness. They appear to help her a lot.

2:01AM PST on Nov 23, 2009

I called office of the aging and all they want to do is talk to my mother and not to me. When I appeared "upset" they called adult protective services and this skank in a sleazy dress came and opened our refrigerator. Then she says if we can come up with 250.00 she "knows a cleaner". This is the help that is in our area. How creepy is that?

1:31PM PDT on Oct 11, 2009

This article really puts a reality on growing up and growing old. There is never a time that is too soon to get these types of things figured out. In fact, it saves much time and hassle. Especially in your situation, I couldn't imagine myself being that collected to think about going to my dad's house.

7:43PM PDT on Sep 30, 2009

Oh, I have never read such a wonder group of comments. Teresa, I would be afraid, too. Rudy, I wish I could give you a big hug. Heather, you are so sweet. Janet, I wish you'd had more time, too. Noldy, thank you for making this world a better place to live.
Thank you all for these posts.
Yep, I will savour every moment - and I will start straightening out some things even if I only expect to be walking down this road in about 10 years.

8:54AM PDT on Sep 29, 2009

This article was both informative and frightening. Both of my parents are still alive and mostly "well", and I try not to think of what the future could hold. I figure I'll deal with it when it comes. My father is 5 years older than my mother, still working at 73, and also taking care of much around the house. My mom, who is severely overweight, has knee problems and some other medical (and emotional)
"issues". I believe my mom will outlive my dad, at which point I will need to pick up some of what my dad has been doing for both my mom and my sister. My sister has MS is getting divorced and is living with my parents. She is unable to work and my parents have had to help out with her medical bills and other daily expenses. I work full time, have four children of my own (the youngest is now 18) and four grandchildren.
I believe this article, and several others that I have "stumbled" onto lately are sending me a message that I need to do some planning now in order to avoid heartache and stress later.

6:45AM PDT on Sep 28, 2009

I have recently become the POA for my father as he had a fall and is now in Assisted Living. This process has been enormous and extremely time consuming. No matter how many times we had the conversation about downsizing it never happened. It is so important to make plans for an aging parent. I found out the since my father was a Veteran he was eligible for so many things he had no idea he could take advantage of. The paper work for the Veterans Administration is extensive but there are people out there to help and the money he is now eligible for is helping pay for assisted living and will pay for a Veterans nursing home when we have to cross that bridge.

Rudy I wish you the best and will have you in my thoughts and prayers.


11:04PM PDT on Sep 27, 2009

I am an 87 year old man, still independent and able to care for myself, but living alone and apprehensive regarding the future. Unless I drop dead standing up, the time is bound to come when I will need care, and I have no living relative who would willingly assume the task. My concern for the future, and what to do about it, is constantly nagging at the back of my mind.
I have a loving niece who nursed her mother (my sister) until her death, but she lives thousands of miles away, has care giving problems of her own, and certainly can't take me on as well.
How I envy the now dead parents mentioned by the other contributers to this column, for having loving, caring children to ease and comfort their last days.
Be proud of yourselves for that which you did.

Rudy J

6:25PM PDT on Sep 27, 2009

The DNR must be presented to medical personnel in an emergency. I found out the hard way that they will not go through a patient's personal belongings to look for one. My dad's was in his wallet, but either he never presented it or they lied about seeing it, as they coded him three times. No elderly person should ever have to be subjected to that.

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