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Posted: October 11, 2004

Practical Caregiving

Learning the Ropes of Guardianship

In some ways my father did a terrific job arranging for his and Mom's care if something happened that he could not make those decisions. Mom, suffering from Alzheimer's, had already lost her ability to make decisions when Dad added my name to their checking account and other financial accounts. I didn't want him to do that, but he did it anyway and insisted that I sign where I needed to sign.

Dad added my name to the financial accounts because he wanted to make sure I could take care of Mom if something happened to him, and I supported that idea. A few years earlier when Mom was still able to understand the decisions they were making, they added my name to the house deed.

There were other forms they needed to sign, but they simply couldn't bring themselves to sign them.

For years Mom and Dad had talked about the decisions they wanted made if they got to a position where they could not make any decisions. They said they should sign the necessary forms so that I could make those decisions ? but they didn't sign them. I even made a special trip with them to get the forms, but they just couldn't bring themselves to sign them. They always found an excuse and said they would sign them later. They had to make a telephone call. They had to go to the bathroom. A friend was coming over. Any excuse would do.

I didn't insist on them signing the forms because I was convinced that they would sign them later. My parents had always tried to do what they thought was right, and they thought they should sign those papers. I didn't understand then how hard it is for an elderly person to face the thought that they might not be able to make their own decisions. I didn't know how much a person changes when their health affects their mind and judgment.

I made a mistake millions of adult children make: I held on to my image of my parents as they had always been instead of seeing my parents as ones who might (and probably would) need me to become their ?parent.? This is one of the most difficult transitions an adult child faces. Still, it is so important to face the fact that your parents will become elderly and frail, and they will need you to make their decisions for them. I didn't understand how much those signed papers would be needed.

Whenever I took them to the hospital, I had to answer a lot of questions. The hospitals and doctors had to protect themselves from following my instructions when I didn't have the legal authority to tell them what to do. The only reason I was able to sign hospital forms and make the healthcare decisions for Mom and Dad was the fact that I lived in the same home with them. I couldn't make those decisions because I was their daughter.

There were times I thought I was going to have to go to court to become their legal guardian. Luckily, I didn't need to, but you may not be so lucky. There are other ways to handle things, if you can get your loved one to sign the proper papers. Before I mention those things, I'll explain guardianship (also called conservatorship) as it relates to a family caregiver.

A guardian is an individual (or organization) that a court appoints when a person cannot make or communicate reasonable decisions about their health and financial matters, and when they may be susceptible to fraud or undue influence. The courts will remove only the rights that your loved one is incapable of handling. A guardian cannot make decisions in areas where the court has not given them guardianship. In other words, a guardian has the legal authority to make any and all decisions in the areas of responsibility the court decrees.

You may become guardian for your loved ones health decisions, but not financial decisions, or other areas. Later, guardianship can be reversed when and if your loved one improves.

A guardian should make all decisions in the best interest of their loved one -- whether to have surgery, sell the house, live at home or in a nursing home, how to spend their money. All of these decisions can be made by a legal guardian if they are given court permission. A guardian is given the same information your loved one would receive and should take into account their loved one's wishes when making decisions. A guardian does not sign away their rights as guardian when your loved one is admitted to a nursing home. The nursing home still expects the guardian to be part of the decision-making process.

It would be better if your loved one would sign the proper papers before they are needed and a court gets involved. There are durable powers of attorney for property and healthcare, living wills, joint checking accounts, trusts and other ways to avoid having to go to court for guardianship. An attorney specializing in elder law can be very helpful.

If you think you need to become the guardian of your loved one, contact the Department of Elder Affairs in your area or the National Guardianship Association.

I hope you can do a better job of getting your loved one to sign the necessary papers than I did. Just remember that it can be a very large problem if they don't.

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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