Marriage and Aging…Are You Prepared?
When marriage and aging collide, the combination can often prove overwhelming for both spouses. Most of the time, one spouse experiences a decline in mental capacity and/physical well-being sooner than the other. Sometimes, however, one spouse declines cognitively while the other declines physically. Regardless of the combination of medical issues, the result is usually the same: stress and panic. Familiarity with resources in your area, as well as a bit of basic prior planning, can make the difference between a stressful, but manageable, situation and a crisis.
Two different examples presented themselves to me this past month alone. In the first situation, the husband has dementia while the wife has been hospitalized and subsequently placed in nursing home rehabilitation following a series of surgeries. The husband cannot live on his own and the bills have been mounting daily paying for nursing home care for him while his wife tries her best with the help of physical and occupational therapy to have some hope of one day no longer needing her wheelchair. As is true for so many couples who move to this part of the state in retirement, the children of both spouses live up north, and between their own families and employment, they cannot drop everything to come down here indefinitely to care for either parent. In this particular case, no powers of attorney were put in place prior to the onset of the husband’s dementia, and he no longer possesses the mental capacity to sign legal documents or make any decisions for himself. The result of the lack of planning has been numerous emergency petitions and an emergency hearing in court in order for the wife to be able to access accounts and start making decisions regarding placement, caregivers, Medicaid, and other matters in combination with the inevitable stress and mounting bills.
In a different case, the wife is fine, but her husband, who is jointly on title along with her to their home, has dementia and now requires 24 hour, 7 day a week care in a memory care facility. The cost of his care is substantially more than their income and assets, and the wife has chosen to sell their home, move to a smaller house in a less expensive part of town, and use the surplus from the sale to pay for her husband’s care. The problem is that no powers of attorney were ever put in place and, just as in the situation above, we’ve had to run to court in a panic to have the wife appointed as Temporary Guardian and Conservator, and then separately file a different petition with the same court for permission from the court to sell the house—all after a contract with buyers was already signed allowing the standard 30 days to close. The realtor never mentioned that a spouse on title to the property who was residing in a memory care facility due to advanced dementia probably wouldn’t’ be able to legally sign the legal documents necessary to liquidate his largest financial asset. The closing attorney, however, was definitely going to notice.
Whereas the medical problems in these situations were and are completely unavoidable and a part of the aging process, the lack of basic planning documents created a crisis that otherwise would have been much more manageable and much less expensive to deal with. Sometimes, I feel like the proverbial broken record: It is much harder and more expensive to clean up the mess after the bomb explodes than it is to prevent the bomb from exploding to begin with. Elder Law Attorney to English translation: Please get powers of attorney before the mental decline begins. Each person should have a Durable Power of Attorney and a separate and distinct Health Care Power of Attorney. Please exercise your legal right to choose who should have the legal authority to make decisions for you if you cannot make them for yourself instead of leaving it up the attorneys and the judges. We are happy to help you and your family, but you and your family will be happier if we don’t need to.