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A lawyer's tips for caring for your aging parents

If you are starting on the adventure of caring for your parents, or have been a parent's caretaker for awhile, you are not alone. According to research by MetLife's Mature Market Institute (MMI), the percentage of adults caring for aging parents has more than tripled in the past few decades. Caretakers do everything from driving their parents to doctor's appointments to feeding and bathing them.

Making the choice to care for an elderly or ill parent is both respectable and kind, but it is also expensive and exhausting. Here are some tips on how you can protect you, your finances and your loved one.

1. Start with a plan

There are many factors that go into caring for your parent. Here are some questions you should answer early:

  • Where will your parent live? Will your parent live on their own, with you, in senior housing or a nursing home? Will you have another company help with the care giving? Consider the costs of all options.
  • Will you quit your job to care for your parent? This must be a personal decision, and you should consider all of the pros and cons before making it. You may not only lose an income, but also your retirement savings and benefits.
  • What resources does your parent need to thrive? What do they currently have and how does that support what they need? Make a budget to show what you will need to spend on care giving.
  • What benefits does he or she need? There may be public benefits available to help support your parent. Read up on Medicare options and what health benefits your parent will need. For parents with minimal assets, Medicaid may help pay for a nursing home. Long-term care insurance may be necessary to protect your financial well-being.
  • What help do you need? Consider hiring a geriatric care manager who can help you create a plan that works for your family. Look into the government and nonprofit resources available to you and your parent. You may be able to request a nurse to help you with care giving, or receive benefits to help pay for food.
  • Does your parent have estate planning documents in place? If not, now is the time to create an estate plan.

2. Write it down

If your parent does not have an estate plan in place, encourage them to create one. Options for protecting their financial wishes include:

  • Trusts: Through trusts and asset transfers, your father or mother can protect their assets and direct how they should be spent in the present and in the future. Trusts are an effective tool to protect their financial well being, particularly if they are disabled or you are considering a nursing home for them. By-pass trusts and life insurance trusts help minimize estate taxes, and charitable trusts can help your parent give money to the causes they believe in.
  • Wills or living trusts: Your parent should create documents to define who will receive what when they pass away. This can be done through a traditional will or a living trust/revocable trust. Living trusts can help you and your other family members avoid probate.
  • Advance health care directives/living will: This is a very important tool that allows your parent to define whether they should stay on life support, and who should make health care decisions for them should they become incapacitated and unable to make the decisions for themselves.
  • Power of attorney: This document gives you or another person the right to make financial or business decisions on your parent's behalf.

3. Consider a conservatorship

If your parent is unable to make financial or health care decision on their own, consider setting up a conservatorship. A conservatorship gives you the authority to make those decisions for him/her and the estate.

4. Keep an eye out for elder abuse

As your loved one becomes less self-sufficient, they also become an easier target for abuse. Elder abuse is a catch-all term that covers everything from physical and sexual abuse to financial exploitation. As a caregiver, it is important for you to watch out for - and know the signs of - abuse.

Physical signs could include bruises, burns and bedsores, among others. Less obvious signs include emotional changes such as withdrawal, unexpected depression, confusion and strained relationships. If your parent's financial situation changes suddenly, look into the possibility of financial abuse. Remind your parent to always confirm they know the caller before picking up the phone and to be critical of anyone asking for money.

Your parent spent countless hours raising you into the person you are, and now it is time to give back. By taking the time to prepare for your care-giving responsibilities and exploring your options, you will be in a better position to provide the kind of loving care your parent needs.

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