Dementia & the Durable Power of Attorney

You may notice the symptoms slowly over time: changes in memory, forgetting where the car was parked, changes in speech, or the way they walk. When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, the questions of what is to come next rush in all at once: What will this mean for our household management? Who will take care of them when they are no longer able to? Should I still work to save money we’ll need or would it be better to stay home? Does our insurance cover care? How will the kids take this?

Dementia is a disease that impacts the whole family and every component of an individual’s life. One aspect that families may not think of right away is the legal facets of the disease. Dementia is umbrella term used to talk about a group of fatal brain diseases that cannot be stopped or even slowed. Some of the most common forms include Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Frontal Temporal Lobe Dementia. A devastating diagnosis like this is one of the triggers for reviewing and updating any legal documents you may have such as a living will. It is common for individuals to feel differently about their decisions when they are facing a real disease and have new information rather than hypothetically imagining their own experience of aging. You may also want to add a few documents that you didn’t previous have such as a POLST- Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment that acts as a quick guide to any emergency responder, caregiver, hospice worker or other healthcare worker in the home and can easily be taken to the hospital.

The most important document that will be the focus of this blog post is a legal document called, The Durable Power of Attorney. When appointing a Power of Attorney (POA), you are selecting someone you trust to execute your wishes. As long as an individual is of sound mind and able to understand the choices they have to make, they are able to still make decisions regarding their healthcare, finances, etc. In a regular POA you are granting legal rights for an individual to do things on your behalf and can define the scope of this power; however it ends should the person become incapacitated or die. The critical piece for those with dementia is to make the document a “durable” power of attorney. This means that the power of attorney will still be in effect even when the disease has rendered the individual legally incapacitated and unable to make decisions on their behalf. Because of the inevitable decline of brain disease, creating a legal safety net and someone to speak on behalf of those with the disease is one of the first steps to take after a diagnosis. 

For those facing any debilitating disease, especially those with dementia, designating a trusted person in an Advance Directive or Healthcare Power of Attorney is of vital importance. This document lays out decisions regarding specific treatment you would and would not like given certain scenarios and appoints a Healthcare Power of Attorney to make treatment and healthcare decisions on your behalf. This may include everything from what facility/ care setting they are in to the point at which life sustaining treatment such as resuscitation is used. When choosing a trusted person to be your advocate in this specific legal way, be sure to talk openly about your wishes and the values that support your decisions and how you came to the conclusions that you did. This will help your Healthcare POA to respond to unexpected situations and respect the spirit and specifics of your wishes.  

If the individual does not create a Durable Power of Attorney the family may need to go through a lengthy and expensive legal process to gain guardianship of a loved one with the disease. A guardian may also be appointed if the family has an irreconcilable disagreement about the finances or healthcare decisions being made for an individual. Finding a good Elder Law Attorney allows families to get the legal documents they need and the right language to best protect aging adult with dementia. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys has a national directory of qualified elder law attorneys who specializes in the legal aspects of aging adults. Click here to visit their website.

There are so many questions to answer after a diagnosis with dementia. You can bring your questions to Sound Options. Since 1989, our Geriatric Care Managers have been helping families in Puget Sound navigate the difficult decisions and care challenges for those with aging loved ones suffering from dementia. Our in-home caregivers also provide a customized and safe option to receive memory care right in the comfort of home. Begin your journey with a one-hour consultation with an RN or MSW expert in elder care. Leaning on their guidance and experience can make all the difference for families and loved ones carry the heavy burden. You’re not alone. You have Sound Options. 800.628.7649.  

Published on October 8, 2014.