For the past several months my 88 year old Mom has had difficult moments. On a few mornings she woke up and thought she was in her old home and not at the independent Living Community she had moved into. Once in awhile she thought she was at the Senior Center waiting for a friend to pick her up, but every time I went to see her she recognized who I was and seemed relatively lucid.
Then things changed. She caught a very uncomfortable stomach virus and had to go to the hospital to get treatment. While she was there her alertness diminshed dramatically but she still recognized who I was. After four days in the hospital she was moved to a rehab. facility. I went to visit her there and she surprised me by calling me by my father’s name. I had become my father. After an hour visit I told her that I had to go home and would be back in two days. She was very angry with me expecting me to stay there with her. There was nothing I could do to diminish her anger. She expected her husband to stay with her or at least visit her every day. When my father was very sick with Parkinson’s she visited him every day in the nursing home and she expected him to do the same for her.
How do I respond? Do I go along with her and become my father for her? Or do I continue to remind her that I am her son. She was very angry today when I called her, asking why I was not with her. Then she asked me how long we had been married. I was in a no win situation. I told her I would see her three days this week and she was very unhappy, expecting more.
Dementia is a very elusive force, slipping into the background one moment and returning with power a few hours or days later. It seems to appear in stages, at first a moment or two here and there, then just in the mornings and now as a full time agressor. I felt very confused and depressed when I first noticed that my mother no longer recognized me as who I was. I had always feared that this would occur someday. But now it is here and I must come to grips with it. Should I embrace it as part of my Mom’s existence or fight it and her every chance that I can?
Estate planning is such an ominous term. Most of us try to avoid it as long as possible because it deals with our death and ultimate demise. I would rather we rename it “Transition Planning”. It is the planning we must do for our parents and ourselves to avoid legal delays and complications when the ownership and/or control of our assets shifts to another person or entity.
I have observed a number of situations where estate planning was not done properly. One that is still vivid in my mind involves one of my clients who was a retired physician. He was failing both physically and mentally when his wife decided to place him in a nursing home. She began making decisions regarding his finances, continuing to use their joint check book to pay the bills and make purchases, etc. Then without warning, she was contacted by the attorney of the Doctor’s first wife’s family stating that she had no authority to act in his behalf even though she was his second and current wife.
The family alleged that she was acting irresponsibly and making financial decisions that would result in the depletion of the Doctor’s assets so that nothing would be left for his children. Unfortunately,she had no document that stated she had the right to act in his behalf. She was forced to go to Probate Court to prove that he was incompetent and become his conservator. (A conservator has the legal right to act on behalf of a mentally incompetent individual.)
She had to testify before a judge in probate court that her husband was incompetent—an event that proved very embarrassing for the whole family. The judge ruled that the Doctor could not handle his own affairs and his wife was named as his conservator. But the legal process took more than a month.
The whole mess could have been avoided if the Doctor had signed a very short three page document called a “Durable Power of Attorney” while he was still healthy. This document gives an individual the right to make financial decisions for you when you are no longer able to make decisions for yourself. A regular power of attorney only allows you to act in the person’s behalf if they are mentally competent. The “Durable” power works regardless of the individual’s mental state.