Many of us like to fantasize about how we might want to spend our golden years, but far fewer people take the time to confront tough legal questions related to aging.
Some wait until it’s too late, perhaps because they don’t know where to start, or they may have a misplaced fear of accidentally signing away their independence. This hesitation can unintentionally create a burden for their children or loved ones, who eventually become forced to make major decisions quickly — and maybe not in the way the person would have preferred.
As an elder law attorney in private practice and a pro bono attorney for Legal Aid Society, I often assist with common legal matters for the elderly, such as long-term care planning, asset management, powers of attorney, wills, conservatorships, eligibility for Medicaid, Veterans benefits and Social Security. It can be heartbreaking when people don’t come to me until their situation is urgent, when I can’t do as much for them as I could have a short time before.
Grandparents’ Day, which took place Sept. 12, is a good occasion to stop and think about the older members of our families and how we can help maintain their quality of life as they age. Here’s a general overview of how to begin addressing legal concerns that typically arise with elderly adults.
1. Start the conversation
If you have an older parent, the process of helping them get their affairs in order starts by simply asking questions: If something happens to them tomorrow, what’s the plan? Are their important documents, keys and passwords accessible and organized? Do they have a will?
Sometimes, the way to broach the subject and overcome a loved one’s fears is to bring them to someone like me. An elder law attorney can help identify the most pressing areas of concern and address them in partnership with the family, working to maintain a senior’s autonomy and independence for as long as possible.
2. Establish a power of attorney
Although each person’s needs are different, there are a few common denominators in terms of what needs to be done. One important task is to establish a power of attorney while still competent. This document gives a trusted individual the authority to make financial, legal and health decisions on behalf of another person. A power of attorney can make it much easier for family members to sell a house, access personal information and make major financial and health decisions.
However, a power of attorney can be near-meaningless if it’s not written correctly. It needs to clearly transfer specific rights from one individual to another, yet also be general enough that it can be applied more broadly. For instance, if you get power of attorney to access a person’s online passwords, that can cover anything from a bank account to Kroger or Best Buy.
3. Create a Plan
Because of our work with older clients, people often confuse the focus of elder law attorneys with that of estate planning attorneys. But while estate planning involves preparing for events after a person’s death, elder law focuses on maintaining quality of life while a person is still living and after death.
Developing a plan is one of the most important things that can be done to maintain a loved one’s independence, safety and well-being. It allows them to decide, while they’re still healthy and clear-minded, what they want to happen if they’re incapacitated or bedridden. A carefully constructed plan can go into effect in a crisis situation or during a more gradual, longer-term event, such as the onset of dementia.
Many seniors prefer the option of continuing to live in their own home, rather than a dedicated facility — although having round-the-clock care might not always be affordable. Are they comfortable with people outside the home coming to help them? Would they prefer to live with family if it’s a viable option? A living will can allow them to specify their wishes while they’re still able to do so.
How Legal Aid Society can help
While certain areas of elder law may require specialized services from a paid attorney, the team at Legal Aid Society is available to assist elderly lower-income adults across Middle Tennessee with many common legal issues related to aging:
- Financial assistance to cover the costs of a nursing home
- Getting home- and community-based services
- Establishing durable power of attorney, durable power of attorney for health care and/or a living will
- Accessing health care, including TennCare, Medicaid, Medicare or CHOICES
- Getting a court order to make decisions for another person
Please contact us at 800-238-1443 or visit www.las.org/find-help/kinds-cases-take/kinds-health-cases-take for additional information on how we can help.
About Travenia Holden
Travenia Holden is an elder law attorney based in Lebanon and a pro bono attorney for Legal Aid Society. She assists families in dealing with issues of asset management, government benefits eligibility and estate planning.
About Legal Aid Society
Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands advocates for fairness and justice under the law. The nonprofit law firm offers free civil legal representation and educational programs to help people in its region receive justice, protect their well-being and support opportunities to overcome poverty. It serves 48 counties from offices in Clarksville, Columbia, Cookeville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Oak Ridge and Tullahoma. Legal Aid Society is funded in part by United Way. Learn more at www.las.org, or by following the firm on Facebook.