The revelation that a loved one, especially a parent, has dementia can be a heart-wrenching experience. It is not just the fear of watching them fade away into a shadow of their former selves, but also the deep sorrow of confronting the possibility of what the future might look like — the conversations that might never happen, the memories that might never be shared. In addition to that, dealing with aging parents can be extremely isolating, making the burden of having to make critical care and legal decisions feel paralyzing. The reality though is that you’re not alone, and there are steps you can take right now to help navigate these uncharted waters.
Before making any decisions, ensure a comprehensive medical evaluation is done by a reputed neurologist or geriatrician specializing in dementia care. A clear diagnosis will help in understanding the type and stage of dementia. This initial assessment can influence future care and treatment plans tailored to your parents’ needs.
Power of Attorney (POA)
A Power of Attorney is an excellent tool that empowers you or another trusted loved one to make medical or financial decisions for your parents, should they be unable to do so. These legally binding documents must be drafted and signed while the person granting the power (in this case, your parent) is mentally competent. Additionally, once the document is dated, signed, and witnessed, it must also be notarized by a notary public to be valid.
We recommend dividing up the Financial and Health Care Powers of Attorney into two different documents in case you wish to appoint different agents for each, not share your financial wishes with health care providers and vice versa and make the pertinent sections more easily visible.
In Pennsylvania, if a person is incapacitated and hasn’t previously executed a valid Power of Attorney, the court can appoint a guardian. This is a court-appointed person, often a family member or loved one, who can make decisions for someone without the need for consent. To obtain it, the person seeking guardianship must provide clear and convincing evidence of the loved one’s incapacity, through the expert testimony of a physician or psychologist. It is also possible for the court to appoint a “limited guardian” who has only specific, court-defined powers, which is a less intrusive alternative.
Health Care Directives
Pennsylvania’s Advance Health Care Directive Act enables residents to articulate their preferences for medical treatment in a living will or written combination of a health care power of attorney and living will and to appoint a health care agent to ensure that these wishes are carried out. Just like all other legal documents, it‘s vital to ensure that these directives comply with state regulations, clearly indicating the kind of treatment your parents would or would not like to receive and under what circumstances. This can save you the heartache of having to make these decisions yourself and struggling with what they might want.
Making a Will
Make sure that your parent has a robust Will in the case of their sudden death. Without a Will, the distribution of assets, also known as probate, is up to previously determined state statutes. While these statutes may be adequate, they may not divide up assets the way that your parents want them to be divided. Ensure that your parents’ estate planning documents are up-to-date and adhere to Pennsylvania laws.
Look for Support
There are many Pennsylvania-specific organizations, such as the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Pennsylvania Chapter, that offer resources, support groups, and education for families impacted by dementia. You can even register for local Walks to End Alzheimer’s to connect with other families who might be experiencing similar challenges due to dementia and other conditions.
Always remember that as laws change and evolve, it’s essential to seek advice from a Pennsylvania Certified Elder Law Attorney to ensure compliance and optimal decision-making for your parents’ well-being.
Tammy A. Weber is a Certified Elder Law Attorney and the Managing Attorney of the law firm of Marshall, Parker & Weber, LLC with offices in Williamsport, Jersey Shore, and Plains. For more information visit www.paelderlaw.com or call 1-800-401-4552.