Counseling Loved Ones About Aging

The holiday season is a time we gather together and celebrate the holidays in the company of loved ones we may not see often.  The holidays can also be a valuable time to consider as a family how best to support each other, particularly as there may be aging parents or grandparents in the picture.

In a comfortable setting, suggest that the topic be broached.  Leave sufficient time for discussion, so that feelings can be comfortably expressed.  Depending on your family situation, it may be appropriate to meet only as parents and children.  Any in-laws, grandchildren, etc., can be invited as appropriate, but it may be best to involve only immediately family members at the outset.

Here are some helpful questions to ask and points of discussion:

  1. Where are important family financial and personal documents kept? Are those documents someplace safe and all together? Are copies kept with financial advisors or an attorney?  At what financial institutions does the family member have accounts? These are some questions that interested family members should probably know the answer to in the event that something happens where those documents are required.
  2. Is there a will or other estate plan already in place?  If so, has it been revisited within the past 5 years or so? Most adults at some point express their desires for the future disposition of their estate in a will or other document.  However, as they age, the will may no longer appropriately express those interests.  For example, they may list a spouse, now deceased, as personal representative of the estate and it now becomes time to list another.
  3. What is the status of the aging family member’s finances? What assets are available to the aging family member?  What are the income and its sources?  In the event that unexpected medical costs were to arise, what plans are in place to cover the expenses of that care?
  4. Who’s “in charge” if the aging family member suddenly needs medical care or is disabled? There may be an understanding among adult children that one sibling is more or less “in charge” of the aging family member’s affairs—perhaps one that lives close by and is accustomed to running errands for the family member.  However well that may work in day-to-day situations, it is definitely not sufficient should the family member need decisions made on their behalf if they are incapacitated in some way.

Absent a medical or financial power of attorney and absent a living will or advanced directive, there is no way that even the best-intended family member can legally speak on behalf of the incapacitated family member.  That agent, acting as power of attorney, is legally obligated to act in the family member’s best interests and according to their wishes insofar as they can reasonably known. Accordingly, an effective power of attorney document should express those wishes, and those wishes should be discussed with all involved.