By Gary Beagle
I recently had to
assist my 78 and 82 year old aunt and uncle, respectively, who were
dealing with some pretty typical issues – fear of losing independence,
an awkward reliance on family members and their changing status in their
own community. As a professional fiduciary, I do this for a living and
thought I would be able to jump right in and give them the benefit of my
My aunt and uncle have no children, but do have community support from
friends. In my conversations with my aunt, she shared that my uncle, not
her, was getting more forgetful. These conversations went on for about six
When I actually visited them, I discovered that they were not coping as
well as they had said. For example, my uncle is a Methodist minister and
still had a small congregation in a neighboring town. I discovered that he
would get up to preach and halfway through the sermon forget what he was
discussing and end up preaching on three or four subjects. Because he had
been a stable and positive influence within his community for over 50
years, people overlooked his ramblings. Ironically, his congregation
continued to grow during this period.
The most revealing incident that showed me the extent of his lapse of
short-term memory occurred at a local restaurant when he introduced me to
a resident. In the course of the conversation, he asked how her mother was
doing. The woman was a little taken back since my uncle had conducted her
funeral the previous week.
If one individual is having physical or memory problems, usually a
spouse will fulfill the role of caregiver in order to maintain some
semblance of their previous life style. But what happens if that
individual is having problems as well?
In my infinite wisdom, I contacted the aging services within their
county to see if there were support services available. What I found was
one caseworker for the entire county. Because my aunt and uncle had some
assets, they were not eligible for help. I went to Plan B and contacted
the Oklahoma Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers to
obtain names of qualified individuals to provide case management. I
located an individual 50 miles away and had her begin the process of
getting my aunt and uncle on the right track. I thought I had it all under
When individuals have the right to determine their own destinies, they
sometimes will not cooperate. My aunt and uncle decided they were quite
capable of taking care of themselves. Something I had learned several
years ago is that individuals have to experience a crisis before they
accept help. The crisis came about six months later.
My aunt contacted an uncle in Oklahoma, saying she was having a nervous
breakdown and asked him to immediately come to help. When he arrived, she
was unable to cope any longer with my uncle or herself. Arrangements were
made for admittance to a geriatric unit at a local hospital for a full
evaluation. What we found was a person with severe depression and anxiety.
This crisis started a process that would not have been carried through
unless a plan had been created earlier outlining their wishes.
How can we help our elderly family members with medical and financial
decisions? Where do we begin? First, sit down and ask who they trust to
make medical and financial decisions.
Second, visit an attorney to assist with documents that will answer
these questions. If cost is an issue, there are a lot of free services
available through Legal Aid and senior centers. Their attorney will
discuss living wills, durable powers of attorney, and durable power of
attorney for health care.
Third, make sure that you know the answers to the following questions
in the event that you have to step in to make decisions on their behalf:
person’s current health?
of trust with doctors? Is the person comfortable with their doctor
making the final decision concerning any treatment needed?
makes the person laugh or cry?
is their attitude toward death?
are the wishes on the use of life sustaining measures for terminal
the person could not care for himself any longer, how would living
is the level of worry concerning the amount of money required for
funeral arrangements been made? What are the wishes for funeral,
burial, or cremation?
can be trusted to make medical or financial decisions if the person
were unable to?
These are tough questions to answer. I have friends who have ended up
in therapy after trying to answer them, but they need to be asked.
Luckily, I had conducted the exercise with my aunt and uncle and executed
the necessary documents to ensure their desires and needs would be met.
Individual self worth and dignity are important factors as we age. We
need to allow the individual the dignity and privacy we all want through
this process. If the individual does not want to discuss the specific
issues, honor that. The old saying, “all things work out in the end”
really is true. It might not end as you envisioned, but when an individual
reaches a crisis state, situations tend to resolve themselves.
One last piece of advice that I hear over and over for older
individuals is to live life to the fullest each day, doing what you want
now. Their biggest regret is not what they have done, but what they