There are those subjects that we often avoid discussing with our family. Sometimes it can be privacy issues, or discomfort in asking questions that have until now been considered off limits. If and when a sudden illness or accident occurs and your loved one is no longer able (whether temporarily or permanently) to manage their affairs, someone needs to be at the helm, ensuring bills are paid, pets are cared for, obligations fulfilled.
The fact is, most families are unprepared for such an event. And while we are scrambling to understand and manage the complexities of medical care, there may not be a lot of bandwidth for hunting down the nitty gritty details of someone else’s life. There are many pieces of information that need to be known so that the person who is ill does not suffer unnecessary stress and consequences as a result of common things that can fall through the cracks.
Having the necessary knowledge to keep someone’s personal and financial affairs in order involves more than a Power Attorney or an Advanced Health Directive. The documents may be signed but do you really understand the details of what makes someone else’s life run smoothly? It is so important, particularly if someone is diagnosed with dementia, to have these conversations early, so that wishes can be honored.
If you are the responsible party for someone in the case of injury or illness, here are just a few things to think about:
One missed mortgage payment, for example, can be costly (late fees), and impact credit score. Are you aware of the mortgagor, the contact information, the loan number, and the amount/due date of payments? An auto loan payment can have similar impact.
Think about funds needing to be accessed to pay for care, take care of monthly bills, or pay for services that have been rendered prior to the time of illness? Do you know bank account numbers, can you locate personal checks, access cash reserves? Do you even have authorization to execute transactions on your person’s behalf?
What about medications? Maybe a hospital has the medical record, maybe not. Do you know who the primary care physician is? Specialists? What medications are essential on a daily basis? Are there particular medications the hospital might administer that will cause dangerous or at the very least unpleasant allergic reactions?
Monthly bills will still need to be paid. Can you locate utility, cell phone, internet bills and do you know how they are to be paid? (automatic bill pay, actual written checks, cash at a local office)
What about pets? In the chaos of an emergency, a pet can go unfed and without proper care for several days or longer. Are you aware of pet needs, veterinarian information, special diets? Are there neighbors who could help? Who, if anyone, has a key to your loved one’s home? Do you have a key? Is there an alarm system?
Where are important papers kept? In a safe deposit box at the bank? In a safe at home? Do you have access in case of an emergency?
If death is sudden or imminent, are you aware of your loved one’s wishes regarding end of life care, and/or funeral arrangements?
These are just a few of the many issues that can become urgent during a sudden serious health-related episode. As uncomfortable as it is to broach the questions about sad and distressing “what-ifs”, the consequences of being without the information you need at a time of crisis may far outweigh the difficult conversations.
Set aside a time for the conversation, organize your thoughts and questions, try to keep family dynamics out of the room, have empathy for the likely resistance you will encounter, take a deep breath, and take care of business. Or, if it seems appropriate, have someone outside the emotional landscape of the family facilitate the conversation.
You will be grateful that you took care of this before it became a necessity.