By Lois Jasmer
No the title here is not about the movie with Kevin Costner, although I do like him in this movie. I am speaking of a situation that I see many older seniors living, or should I say existing in. One senior is the brains, maintaining the finances, making decisions, the mouth piece. The other is the Body, physical able, still driving (even though they shouldn’t be), cleaning and sometimes cooking, care giving in a physical way. The Brains usually has physical limitations and the Body usually a dementia.
Life is unpredictable and this only works for so long and then something happens. There comes a day when the Brains can no longer make a decision and the Body is not safe to be alone. At that point someone will need to step in and make a decision for them.
I work with couples all the time where one or the other is failing in the hospital and the other spouse has some stage of dementia, the Perfect Storm. It is a pretty typical scenario. Where it becomes tricky is when there is no POA besides the spouse with the dementia or no POA at all. When I ask if they have a Power of Attorney the answer is “no we are married and have a will”. The assumption here is that the executor can handle things for them and in the meantime the spouse will make decisions. They do not realize that the spouse cannot deal with financial matters where the other spouse is the soul person assigned to the account (IE a Boeing pension). Or that the executor can only manage things once the senior has passed; until then they have no ability to access the funds of the senior.
Below is a true scenario of what could happen.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith, clients of mine were living a nice life in an apartment building locally. They were the perfect storm when it comes to elderly couples. He was the brains and she was the one physically able to maintain what looked like a normal life. What I am saying here is that she had dementia and was taking care of the home and driving them to appointments and he was physically very ill yet cognitively very aware and able to do the finances and be the mouth piece for their existence. They made a decent retirement, had a little savings and a nice 2 bedroom apartment, a dog and a car. They had no POAs beyond each other.
The couple was able to maintain until Mr. Smith ended up in the hospital with weeks to live. With no one to keep Mrs. Smith safe in her apartment she was also admitted to the hospital solely to keep her safe until a placement somewhere safe could be found. Here is where things got tricky.
Mr. Smith was fragile and anxious about his pending death, let alone having to think about his financial matters and his wife’s safety. He became unable due to his medical condition to handle matters or make decisions on his own for himself or his wife, and Mrs Smith due to her mental condition could not do so either. She needed to be placed in a safe environment, where her dementia could be safely managed. However, paperwork needed to be signed and bills paid for her stay, but there was no one to do this, no family or friends with POA; power to help with the couples situation.
As a last resort someone had to file with the court system to get guardianship for Mrs. Smith. This is a stranger assigned by the courts to make all decisions for senior. It is not a quick fix nor an ideal situation for the senior. A trusted person, such as a son, daughter or friend that can lovingly and logically make choices for Mrs. Smith would have been the ideal situation.
It is smart to plan ahead or if you have a senior in your life ask them if they have a durable POA for financial and healthcare matters in place. This will save you, your senior and the whole family from big problems if and when an emergency happens. It is not an easy discussion and it is an initial conversation that I am more than willing to help facilitate. I work with Elder Law attorneys and financial planners that can help guide you thru the process of planning for the future. Many senior couples I assisted are in the Perfect Storm. Not all are like the Smith’s, and with a bit of planning they can have smooth, stress free transitions, coming out of the storm into calm waters.