Caregiving for an older person has so many aspects.
There are physical and health issues. There are housing and recreational needs. And then there are the bills. I’ve been through this with three parents now – my own two and my husband’s Dad.
My mother was a practical Scot. She lived with my sister, and made sure there was access to her accounts to pay her bills if that became necessary. She showed us both where her records were and saw that my sister was able to take care of things as Mom’s health suddenly went downhill. It made all the difference that Mom had communicated with her and given her the necessary consents.
My Dad was a different story. He had diabetic retinopathy, which impaired his vision much more than he was willing to admit, and his advanced diabetes had begun to cause some neurological issues as well. He tried to keep on top of his bills with the help of his caregiver, but she didn’t have access to his accounts. So… they would go through the bills together, he would instruct her, she would write the checks, and he would sign them. He didn’t really understand his IRA, and didn’t make the best use of it. Finally, he became ill and was hospitalized for several weeks. It became necessary to make other arrangements.
At first, Dad didn’t want to discuss his finances with us, but as we went through them together, it became obvious that he was paying minimum amounts on credit cards rather than paying them off, incurring hundreds of dollars each year in unnecessary interest. He was getting Reader’s Digest books, just because he hadn’t sent back the card saying “No.” Not only were the books not things he would normally have chosen, but with his increasing blindness, he couldn’t have read them anyway. There were a dozen small things like this, adding up to a lot of wasted resources and recurring bills.
Finally, when we convinced him it was necessary to have a health care proxy, we suggested to him that a financial proxy might be helpful as well. Although I wasn’t executor of his estate, he did put me on his checking account and give me power of attorney while he was living. That allowed me to clean up his accounts, pay his bills on time, and when he was in hospice, pre-arrange his funeral. All of this was done in coordination with his caregiver, my sister, and step-sisters. Family communication was no problem for us, and made things go smoothly in his last months and years.
My father-in-law had vision issues as well (macular degeneration), and so had appointed my husband’s older brother as power of attorney to help manage his finances. However, we lived nearest to the assisted living facility where “Dad” settled in. So, they set up a small joint account for him and my husband, to pay for day-to-day expenses like clothes, haircuts, or a lunch out. My brother-in-law was kept up to date and replenished the account as needed, while handling his Dad’s major expenses. Again, communication was key.
I can’t stress enough how important it was to all of us to talk openly about these things. It was especially hard for my father to relinquish some control, but he did finally accept that he couldn’t manage alone anymore. We were very gentle, explaining that we would follow his wishes, but that we needed to be sure everything was being paid on time, and that we were happy to help him. Once he really thought about it, he was actually relieved.
It’s difficult to suggest to a parent or other loved one that there are things he or she can or should no longer try to manage alone. It can be driving, finances, or even going out for a long walk. These are personal freedoms and competencies that we treasure. We don’t want to admit we need assistance to manage them, and there’s a great deal of fear and trust involved in letting go.
Ideally, the person in need of help will broach the subject. If not, you can ask simple, probing questions to see how things are going. Getting deep into the discussion can be tough. Start with the assumption that they have a decent plan and may be coping fine for the time being. If there is clear evidence to the contrary, you might say, “I’ve noticed that…” Just don’t jump in and try to take over without regard to the needs and wishes of your loved one.
To make the actual planning easier, it may be wise to have a third party involved. Someone like the attorney who drafted your wills, the financial planner who manages your retirement accounts, or a similar professional. These people have seen the adverse affects of waiting too long and not planning for someone to assist. They can advise and help you based on your family’s needs. Not planning can result in bills becoming delinquent or out of hand, medical insurance reimbursements not being obtained, unnecessary interest or late charges, and worst of all, unpleasant confrontations within a family about how to do things.
Some businesses will offer to send bills to a third-party payor. If a senior is having someone help with finances, bills can go directly to that person. Increasingly, electronic arrangements can be made for billing and payments. A power of attorney form should be carefully chosen and executed, based on the laws where you live. It should include instructions about the permanency of the power, among other things.
No matter how you manage this within your family, my suggestion is that you initiate conversations before there’s serious trouble, talking through how a backup plan might evolve. Making changes during a crisis rarely goes as smoothly as a well-considered plan would. It’s best to make contingency plans for managing your finances while you can articulate your wishes, and then share necessary info with your designees. They don’t need to be privy to all the details of your business right now, as long as they know where to find everything when the time comes, and understand your plan.
The last thing most of us want is to leave our family members confused or contentious about the best way to provide for us financially – especially if we had a plan and just didn’t bother to share it. Talk to your loved ones (partners, parents, children, siblings) about how you can plan and help one another. It’s really okay to depend on one another and help one another in turn. That’s why we have families and communities.
It takes a village to do all kinds of things. It just makes sense.