“My mom is falling apart. She’s giving money away to anybody who comes by the house, she’s losing weight because she isn’t eating right, and I’m worried about her. I live in New Jersey, and just don’t know what to do. I found your number on your website. Can you help me?”
I’ve received calls like this numerous times. If this is your situation, read on. Here’s what you can do as a concerned son or daughter:
- Visit your parent in person and assess the situation. If you can’t go visit in person, don’t know who else to call, and are desperate for help, call Adult Protective Services (APS) in the county where your parent lives (there’s a Google for that). Talk with a representative, and ask them to go by the house and do a welfare check on the situation. When you visit, do an evaluation of your parent’s status in the following areas: physical health, personal hygiene, eating and nutrition, medication management and compliance, safety of the environment (house and yard), cleanliness of the environment, home repairs needed, status of bill payment (current on paying bills?), activity on the bank account (looking for possible financial abuse), social connections, evidence of scammers (in person, by mail, by email, or by phone), mental awareness and memory, and general attitude about life (depression).
- Make sure that your parent’s estate planning documents are in order. These include at a minimum a Will, an Advance Health Care Directive appointing an agent for healthcare to be their voice when they can no longer speak for themselves (either from lack of capacity or because of unconsciousness), a POLST (Physician’s Orders for Life-sustaining Treatment: get more information here), and a Durable Power of Attorney for Financial Affairs. And please, PLEASE, don’t create these documents yourself! (To understand why, read my blog article on Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning.) Hire an estate planning attorney to ensure the job is done correctly. The attorney can give guidance and counsel on each of these important planning tools, as well as others, including a living trust. With the estate planning documents in place, you have a legal safety net for your parent that will be invaluable to both of you.
- Find someone local to help, to check in on your parent on a frequent basis. This friendly visitor should be someone trustworthy and observant, who can report back to you concerns about any of the factors listed above that you assessed in your visit. Ideas for visitors: neighbors, church members or clergy, friends, a geriatric care manager that you hire to provide oversight and care, or a private professional fiduciary. Exercise some discretion here, so that the person reporting to you isn’t also taking advantage of your parent.
- Have the hard conversations with your parent. Kindly, gently, and lovingly express your feelings, your observations, and your concerns. If your parent is capable, counsel together on how to best address the issues. Simply laying down the law is only going to create resentment and put up barriers to effectively working together. Some of the points you may discuss include the housing situation and the ability to live independently, finances and financial abuse, driving, personal and medical care, and end-of-life wishes, fears, and desires. Warning: this can be an overwhelmingly heavy conversation to have all at once. Spread it out over multiple days, multiple visits, multiple conversations. And a lot of these issues are best addressed years before they become emergencies.
- Continue to call, write, and visit your parent to monitor and follow up.
In short, be their child, not a distant relative. And, if you have children of your own, recognize that they are watching you and how you deal with your parent. You are setting an example that will be followed by the next generation, the generation who cares for you in your old age.