At 18, I was faced with the death of my mother. Then, at 30 I was faced with the illness of my father.
Neither of my parents had planned for much of anything. Instead, my younger sister and I had to make life and death decisions for our father’s care, and we didn’t always agree. Decisions this important—where someone will be cared for, how to pay for it, feeding tube or not—all of this is stressful on relationships. My younger sister is not only someone I love and admire immeasurably; I didn’t want anything to happen to hurt our close relationship. That said, we needed to agree on decisions with no direction from our parents, and that was not always easy.
My father’s journey into the long-term illness began with my overdue visit to his home in south Florida. He and I spoke occasionally by phone and when we did, he seemed fine and could carry on our brief conversations well. This visit quickly became my most memorable one.
His home was filthy when I arrived (he used to be semi-neat), and had a bad odor looming in the air. When I searched the house for the source (upon opening windows, peeking in the refrigerator, dishes in sink, etc.), I opened his oven, and to my horror there sat a roast chicken in a pan that he’d been eating from for a few days. He even offered me some.
Later that day, I inquired about the sleeping bag in the back of his minivan. He sheepishly told me he often was unable to find his way home, so he’d often sleep in the van. Suddenly, the serious childhood head injury (he was hit by a car at 12) and odd behavior pattern as he aged began to look like symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Our father had become a child. It was time for my sister and me to take charge. The lessons learned through the experiences of both my mother’s early death and father’s early illness inspired my career choice. My hope is that you can learn from their lack of planning.
Communicate. Talk to your family or a close friend about your later-in-life wishes and when/if you’re not feeling like yourself, reach out for help. If the first person you ask is not listening or unhelpful, ask someone else. Seek out nonprofits (such as Alzheimer’s Association, Community Services Board), if you don’t have a close family member to step in.
Write it down. It’s vital to tell your loved ones your wishes before you are sick and/or can’t communicate. It’s unfair to blissfully ignore the fact of life about our someday illness and death. I strongly encourage using a legal professional to carefully walk you through the necessary documents vs. hammering this out alone on your computer or a legal pad. There’s a good chance you’ll omit something important, fail to consider all the likely scenarios and even misunderstand the law and have your document invalidated.
Know how you’ll pay for care. I have friends paying $6,000–$9,000 per month in Virginia for long-term care for spouses. Some were wise enough to have a long-term care insurance plan that covers half or all the cost. Those who don’t are draining investment accounts faster than they would have ever thought possible.
Women have more than a 90 percent chance of being single at some point through death or divorce, so it’s especially important for us to have a plan. If you don’t have long-term care insurance, make sure your family understands that you are fine spending down all your assets for the best care possible, and that if need be, and all assets are depleted, that you’re comfortable going onto Medicaid.
You have options. There are now long-term care plans for couples (even unmarried and/or very different ages) that allow sharing of a “bucket” of money in a policy, plans that can provide a return of premium paid in (either all or a portion) and others that provide a remaining death benefit that combines long-term care coverage and life insurance. Be sure to investigate your options while you’re younger and healthier. You may be surprised by how affordable a plan can be.
Talk with your financial advisor and know what the plan will be (spend assets, use an insurance plan, use pensions, etc.) and share it with loved ones. Knowing there’s a solid plan for a future health event is one of the best gifts you can give loved ones, allowing them to focus on loving each other and you during a very difficult time.