Last Updated: August 8, 2018
Many caregivers of parents or senior loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease do not understand the importance of living wills and powers of attorney until it’s too late.
What You Need to Know About Alzheimer’s and a Power of Attorney
Learn more from Attorney Brad Sauer about how and when to execute these legal documents in a timely manner.
1. Living Wills and Health Care Powers of Attorney
As an attorney for one of the branches of the military, my responsibilities include providing legal assistance to active-duty service members and military retirees. For military retirees, I am often asked to prepare:
- A living will (also called an advance medical directive)
- A health care power of attorney
The former is a document that permits health care professionals to cease artificial life-sustaining measures when an individual has a terminal condition, permitting the individual to pass naturally.
The latter gives another person (often an adult child or spouse) the authority to make health care decisions on the individual’s behalf; which takes effect at a lesser stage of incapacitation, such as diminished cognitive abilities or temporary unconsciousness.
Both of these documents are important for a family to have, especially for families with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s or related dementias. These families will often be challenged with ethical issues if the documents are not prepared in a timely manner.
2. The Effect of Alzheimer’s on Legal Documents
To be clear, Alzheimer’s greatly affects living wills and a health care power of attorney, as:
- Neither an attorney nor a notary can ethically prepare or notarize a living will or health care power of attorney for an individual that does not understand the nature of the documents at issue
- Only the person with Alzheimer’s can sign the document pertaining to him or her
This creates a challenging situation for the parent or senior loved one with the disease and his or her family who needs the documents. I am always saddened when an adult child or spouse comes to my office asking for assistance with a loved one with late stage Alzheimer’s. Sometimes the parent with Alzheimer’s is present, but it is clear that he or she does not understand why they are in my office, let alone understand a complicated legal document. Sometimes the senior loved one with Alzheimer’s doesn’t even come. I am forced to answer that, unfortunately, it is too late.
3. Why Capacity Is Needed to Execute a Living Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney
Most attorneys and notaries are not medical professionals, so when determining the capacity to execute a legal document, they err on the side of caution. In fact, some will not even execute or prepare documents for an individual they know has an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
I feel this approach is extreme and will personally execute documents for a person who can explain the basic purpose of the document to me 15 minutes after I explain it to him or her. But, in my experience, most middle to late-stage Alzheimer’s patients are not able to do so.
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis is overwhelming for the parent or senior diagnosed and their loved ones. As you prepare for the future, be sure to talk to senior loved ones early about getting a living will and a health care power of attorney.
They may resist at first, but don’t give up; when your loved one needs them, you will both be glad they have one.
About the Author
Attorney Brad Sauer graduated from George Washington Law School in 2010 and is currently practicing law on active duty status for the military. The opinions and views expressed in this post do not imply endorsement by the United States military.
Have you completed a power of attorney for your parent or senior loved one with Alzheimer’s? We’d like to hear your stories and any suggestions you may have in the comments below.