*This initially appeared in the Quarterly Journal of the Life Planning Network Summer 2016
I am posing a challenge—and steps—for safeguarding your future. After acting in the role of adult caregiver to my parents for more than five years, I have continually added, and updated my own lifestyle plans based on what I learned. As we as a community of professionals look toward how we might advance positive change in the future, I challenge us all to consider first how we are applying what we have learned to ourselves—and, then, how we plan to help others prepare for the rest of their lives.
Every week, many of us talk with families who are struggling with the care of a loved one. Most of the issues revolve around incomplete plans, loved ones unsure of what to do, and usually involve turmoil. How can we help educate our communities about the steps to take toward positive aging?
I watched as my parents made an effort to age better than their parents. They did everything the estate, financial, and insurance advisor recommended and blended in conventional thinking. My parents chose to buy into a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC). They believed that none of their children would ever need to be involved in their care. Many of us know this thinking is still pervasive, and that buying into a Life Care or CCRC and buying a Long-Term Care Insurance policy doesn’t cover the practical lifestyle issues that create turmoil as health issues escalate. There most likely comes a point in your life when someone needs to speak on your behalf; that is something most adults have neither considered nor prepared for.
Everyone should be prepared to allow someone to manage
their finances and medical needs.
Because both of my parents developed cognitive issues that escalated during a healthcare crisis, I needed to be able to step in as their financial and healthcare advocate. When I tried to use the durable power of attorney naming me, and it was refused by firms such as Fidelity, USAA, and even Wells Fargo, I was lucky that my dad had set up digital access to his accounts so I could help manage his financial affairs online. However, it took me nearly a year of forensics to understand their cash flow, corral the finances, manage basic household details, and contact service providers that could service prepaid agreements and appliances covered by warranties.
When it was time to make life and death choices for my dad, I found the guidance in his medical directives minimal. What did dad want me to do when he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor while living with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis?
Not only do we need to have estate plans in place, we need to provide the detailed information that is needed to fulfill the powers you grant.
Good estate planning is for the living.
Most American’s believe that estate planning is for the distribution of assets, and the 44+ million Americans who are now acting as caregivers in some capacity already know that most of us will need some help in our final years. The reality, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Humans Services, is that 70 percent of us who reach age 65 will need three or more years of long-term care services before we die. We might only need help cooking, or driving; but we might need more—someone to make daily living choices on our behalf. And that reality should mean that more Americans are having an ongoing dialogue about how they will manage their daily activities in future years.
My two children, now 19 and 13 years old, watched as I helped my parents. I often discussed with them the many challenges my parents’ care created. Because my parents bought into a Continuing Care Retirement Community, we knew they would always have a bed, but they wouldn’t necessarily always have someone advocating for their interests and needs. That was the primary role I played, on top of financial and medical advocacy. I wanted them to be able to enjoy their final years. Because I had lived most of my adult life near my parents, I had a good handle on their personal choices and end-of-life wishes. So many adult children that arrive after a crisis begins don’t have such knowledge. If we want a different outcome, we must plan differently.
Consider some common roadblocks that confronted me as I stepped in as my parents’ financial and medical advocate:
- Retirement plans and money distributed among a host of different providers. My parents, like others of their generation, were not going to put all of their financial eggs in one basket. It took more than a year to find all of their bank accounts. They had relationships with over 13 financial services firms; their financial advisor knew about only one.
- Financial institutions often have their own requirements for a durable power of attorney. Some institutions did not recognize the legitimacy of my parents’ powers of attorney. Thank goodness for the internet—and that my dad set me up to act on his behalf digitally. This is a complex issue and my advice is to find a lawyer dedicated to the practice of estate and elder law that you like. You may need help in the coming years.
- The belief that doctors will take care of all of health care needs and choices. I still chuckle when I recall how every year my mom would tell me she “passed” her physical. Once I stepped in to be her advocate, I had to be able to quickly represent her medical issues and serve as an encyclopedia of her past medical history. The system I created to document it was always in my briefcase.
- Documentation of home repairs and improvements. I needed it to maintain my parents’ home before it was sold, and then to minimize the tax consequence of the sale to help pay for possible future care needs. It was financially worth the hours of searching for records in the home office, mom’s secretary, and attic files.
- The digital footprint beyond major financial accounts. We had no idea how extensive my father’s digital footprint was. And without documentation, we were unable to close email accounts and had to cancel credit cards to shut down other services. Thankfully, he wasn’t engaged in any social media.
While we will have new technologies and medical breakthroughs that may improve how we age, I’ve taken steps for the future of my aging that I can control. I’ve made sure, for instance, that in my household there will be no single point of failure. While my husband and I divide-and-conquer a host of tasks, and even some bill payment duties, we now have a shared playbook that my kids and my brother, who is named the durable power of attorney, know how to access and use. Because the practical details and information I needed to help my parents were overwhelming, I created a system to help me maintain my sanity.
When friends and colleagues started to ask me for copies, I wrote up a business plan and received an “Older-Adult Focused Innovation” award from AARP Foundation that launched my best-selling book MemoryBanc: Your Workbook for Organizing Life. The workbook just received a “Caregiver Friendly” award from Today’s Caregiver that will be presented at the October 2016 conference.
While I set up all these tools thinking I would be helping caregivers, I’ve been rewarded to learn that most of my clients are between 40 and 60 years old and use the system to coordinate their shared households or set up plan B with a friend. Our world has changed, and how we manage our documents, accounts, details needs to change as well.
I am answering the challenge to improve the future of aging by creating and maintaining a roadmap of my accounts, documents and details. It includes a list of my 80 online accounts, a copy of Five Wishes—an advance directive created by the non-profit organization Aging with Dignity—along with a summary of my end-of-life wishes in more detail to help guide the person named as my medical advocate in my healthcare directives. I am also volunteering dozens of hours each month to teach classes, develop a village within my own community, write articles and make media appearance to advocate how sharing this information will help all of us age better. Will you join me?
Kay H. Bransford is a daily money manager and the best-selling author of MemoryBanc: Your Workbook for Organizing Life.