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.