While it's not a subject many of us like to think about, there eventually comes a time when adult children have to decide how they're going to go about caring for aging parents. It can be an overwhelming task with lots of loose ends, including deciding on a care plan and determining the best living situation. But by knowing the signs of oncoming age-related conditions, preparing helpful legal documents ahead of time, and maintaining an open dialogue with your parents, you'll be better prepared for whatever the future brings.
While there are obvious physical signs of changing health as people get older, they do not necessarily prevent an aging parent from voicing any treatment concerns. Mental disorders, on the other hand, may often go undetected and potentially render a parent incapable of making decisions about their own care.
Conditions such as depression, Alzheimer's, and dementia may impede a person's ability to make informed decisions, so it's important to look out for the following changes in your parent's behavior:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Difficulty focusing and making decisions
- A noticeable increase in short-term memory loss
- Prolonged sadness (lasting for more than two weeks)
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and activities they used to enjoy
- Changes in physical hygiene, clothing style, and general appearance
- An uncharacteristically disordered or unclean home and/or yard
- Difficulty handling finances
Advance Directives and How They Work
Nobody wants to ready themselves for worst-case scenarios. The mental and physical health of your older loved ones, however, can decline quickly and unexpectedly, leaving little opportunity to prepare legal documents before they become unable to participate. It then often falls to the children to decide what's medically best for their parents.
That's why having advance directives in place beforehand is so important. They can help resolve interfamilial disputes, ensuring that your parent is receiving the care they want. These documents and their terms of legality vary by state, but most come in the form of a living will or a document called a durable power of attorney for health care.
A living will allows a person to direct their health care ahead of time in case they become physically or mentally unable to do so later, while a durable power of attorney for health care designates a person that the patient trusts to make decisions for them, called a proxy or agent. Keeping these documents on hand and regularly updated will help doctors and families make informed decisions that best reflect the patient's desires, mitigating a lot of uncertainty and stress.
Start the Conversation Early
Communication is a fundamental key to caring for aging parents. Not every parent/child relationship is the same, however, and it can sometimes be difficult to bring up the sensitive subject of health, especially if it's never been discussed before.
If you don't have a good dialogue with your parents, consider bringing in the help of their physician or health care provider, their attorney, a trusted religious figure, or another family member who might be able to open that door. Try to find out
- Does your parent have any advance directives already made, including wills or trusts?
- What kind of documents are they, and what do they contain?
- Where do they keep their paperwork in the event of an emergency?
It may take a lot of uncomfortable work now to put those preparations in place, but it should make response to any future scenarios much clearer, ensuring greater peace of mind for your older loved ones and the whole family.