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My grandmother and I have always been close.  When I was growing up, I spent many a Friday night having carpet picnics with her and my grandpa where we sat on the living room floor with a blanket and had dinner, usually fried chicken.  We would watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy and then play cards or board games until I fell asleep and they had to carry me to bed.  She still lives in the same house she’s lived in my whole life.  It holds a lot of memories for our family.

Sadly, those memories are becoming foggier to her as she gets older and battles dementia.  For the last three years, our family has been facing the same thing many families face as loved ones age and lose the ability to care for themselves.  It took time for us to figure out who in the family would be involved in helping care for her.  We struggle at times to balance her autonomy and her safety. And of course, there is the task of grasping the financial ramifications of any choices that we make.

The steps she took years ago when she was still giving me a run for my money at Jeopardy have been extraordinarily helpful.  She was adamant about never living in a nursing home so she purchased long-term care insurance with a home health care provision.  She also updated her estate planning documents not long before she started to decline.  She assigned her youngest son, my uncle, as her health care power of attorney and assigned me as her financial power of attorney.  These documents have given us the ability to help her manage her medical treatments and financial needs.

As my grandma’s condition worsened, my uncle seemed to be stepping up to care for her, bringing her over to his house on weekends and even talking about having her come to live with him.  These seemed like good things initially but over time it seemed she was being isolated from the rest of her family and friends.  Her paranoia heightened and she seemed depressed.  It was difficult to tell if these things were being exacerbated by my uncle or if they were just the natural progression of her disease.  Suspicions developed but without anything concrete, we resigned to the fact that there was only so much we could do without taking it to court.

After months of increasing isolation, we learned that my uncle was trying to take ownership of my grandmother’s largest asset, her home.  We found out when my uncle approached her estate planning attorney requesting he re-title the house and the attorney called my grandma to determine if these were her wishes.  Confused, she called me to figure out why he was calling her.  She said nothing about giving her home to my uncle.  Hours later, she called me again and left instructions on my voicemail to change the deed.  She used legal language I’d never heard her use in her most lucid moments.  It was clear to me she was being coached.

Since that day, I’ve spent considerable time making sure her home remains in her possession.  Along the way, I’ve learned some lessons that may help you if you ever find yourself or a loved one at risk for elder abuse.

  • Talk to the attorney. As soon as this happened, I reached out to the estate planning attorney to make him aware of my grandma’s progressing dementia.  He agreed he would not help her execute any changes if she did not possess the competency to do so.
  • Document the mental decline. I gathered documentation from my grandma’s physician and insurance company showing she was cognitively impaired.  While not as foolproof as the court declaring her incompetent, this is simpler and may serve to discourage institutions to take direction from the aged person, defaulting instead to their financial power of attorney.
  • Choose your agents wisely and consider separating the powers.
    • Before you choose someone to act as your power of attorney (Aka: agent) consider if they are right for the job. It’s not as simple as choosing a child or sibling.  It should be someone trustworthy, competent, willing and with enough time to manage the responsibilities.  Learn more about choosing a POA here.
    • Consider assigning one person as the financial POA and another for health care. This prevents any one individual from having unchecked power, which in my case helped tremendously.  Your attorney can tell you if that’s right for you.
  • Take it to the next level. If you suspect someone is being truly harmed, there are a few options.
    • Petition the court to assign you as the individual’s legal guardian, which will enable you to act on their behalf.
    • Hire an elder law attorney who can help with health care, long-term care, guardianship, retirement, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, etc. In cases where individuals have been exploited, an elder law attorney may be able to recover assets.
    • Report elder abuse to Adult Protective Services. If you suspect neglect, exploitation or physical harm contact the department of job and family services in the county in which the person lives.  It is estimated that only 5% of elder abuse is actually reported to the authorities.

These are things no one wants to think about or believe could happen to them.  I was no different until it happened in my family.  While we can’t ignore that most elder abuse happens by someone the person knows, we can take heart that there are laws and services designed to protect ourselves and the ones we love.  Whether it be an ounce of prevention or a pound of cure, there are plenty of ways to take care of the people who once took care of us.