If your loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, you already know how much it can turn your world upside down. There’s a lot of work that you will have to do to make sure they receive the care they need and can enjoy their remaining years as much as possible. It’s also important that you find time to ensure legal protection for your loved one with dementia.
Learn more about how and when to make legal preparations for a loved one with the disease.
Legal Protection for a Loved One With Dementia
Dr. Kimberly Miller, Director of Healthy Mind Sacramento, states, “The most important piece of advice I can give is this: make legal preparations as early as possible, as soon as a diagnosis is made.” She further explains:
“After dementia becomes more advanced, ability to understand concepts involved in legal documents becomes compromised, making it difficult to complete legal preparations.”
While it may be difficult for your loved one to give up some of the legal and financial independence and power they have, making sure they put those powers into the hands of people they love and trust now is crucial to avoid someone else being able to take advantage of them later.
There are five main steps legal experts recommend taking once a loved one is diagnosed with dementia:
1. Create a health care directive.
Estate planning lawyer Somita Basu recommends families with a loved one who has dementia make sure a “valid, recent, notarized Advanced Health Care Directive (also known as a living will) and HIPAA Waiver is in place for your loved one.”
Someone with Alzheimer’s will reach a point where they can’t make informed decisions about their health care. You want to sit down with your loved one now to discuss the potential health issues that may arise and what their choices for treatment would be in each case. That way, not only will you be confident that you’re making the right decision if those situations do occur later, but you can put them into a legally binding living will.
Even with a living will in place, there are potential health care issues that can arise once your loved one’s dementia sets in that won’t be covered. For those, you want to also make sure your advanced health care directive includes providing a medical power of attorney to someone your loved one trusts to make those decisions for them.
2. Create a written care plan with your memory care community.
Once your loved one reaches the point in their illness where you’ve determined the higher level of care provided by a memory care community is required (hopefully a good deal after you’ve created the documents recommended above), you can further protect your loved one by taking the time to work with your chosen facility to get a care plan in writing.
Attorney Steve Levin clarifies, “They need to assess your loved one, make a written plan, implement the plan and constantly re-evaluate to make sure it is meeting your loved one’s needs. This is the law.”
When you have a written plan in place, you have something to refer back to when checking in on the care your loved one is receiving. It’s easier to recognize if there’s something they’re not getting that they should be and to hold the community accountable. But as Levin makes clear, this isn’t a one and done deal. You want to revisit the plan regularly to figure out if there are changes in your loved one’s needs that necessitate making changes to the plan.
3. Create an estate plan.
If your loved one doesn’t want to hand off financial responsibility to someone else without providing clear guidelines for what they’d like to see happen with their assets and investments, then you should all meet with an attorney to develop an estate plan.
Lawyer Jennifer Cona advises that “an asset protection plan along with properly prepared estate planning documents by an experienced elder law attorney provides a clear plan of your loved one’s wishes.”
She explains that “An experienced elder law attorney can break down the options and strategies for protecting assets, preserving investments and income while meeting your loved one’s care and living arrangement preferences.”
A financial power of attorney can make sure your loved one doesn’t get taken advantage of, but for someone in the early stages of dementia who wants to take more direct control over their financial future and decisions, an estate plan lets them lay out more specific plans and intentions.
4. Monitor your loved one’s treatment.
While many memory care communities do a good job of caring for Alzheimer’s residents, there are cases of elder abuse, as well as instances where a resident with dementia simply may not get the care they need. The best thing you can do to protect your loved one from substandard care or abuse is to visit often and keep a close eye on them.
Attorney Prosper Shaked recommends “for the loved ones and close friends of Alzheimer’s patients living in nursing homes and similar types of assisted living facilities to closely monitor their treatment.”
He explains, “Abuse of patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is underreported and often much more difficult to detect.” But if you visit regularly and ask the staff questions about your loved one’s behavior and treatment, while also keeping a close eye on your loved one’s progress, you’re more likely to notice any issues that are cause for concern.
People with dementia are at special risk of being mistreated and taken advantage of, but those who have loved ones willing to take the steps to protect them will have a far lower risk. Do what you can to provide legal protections to your loved ones along with making sure their general caregiving needs are covered as well. You can’t change the effects of the disease, but you can reduce the consequences of them.
5. Set up a financial power of attorney.
This is the other main document Somita recommends to ensure legal protection for dementia patients. As with a medical power of attorney, this ensures that once your loved one loses the ability to make smart financial decisions, someone else will have the power to step in and do so for them.
“One of the side effects of Alzheimer’s is paranoia. Many times, the person affected thinks everyone is out to get their money,” explains elder law attorney Patrick Simasko. “If they reach this level, then they won’t sign any documents.” He recommends getting a financial POA in place and sharing it with all the relevant financial institutions your loved one uses so you can make sure bills get paid and your loved one’s finances stay in good order.
What other steps have you taken to ensure legal protection for a loved one with dementia? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.