Understanding power of attorney for your elderly parent

See how a power of attorney helps families make good decisions in stressful situations.

August 01, 2023

7 min read

Older adult and adult daughter working together on power of attorney paperwork

As our parents grow older, we have to discuss difficult topics such as finances and healthcare decisions – and who will make those decisions should your parent become unable to.

It can be scary to bring up power of attorney because that transfer of authority is often seen as a loss of independence. But if you’re taking care of your parents, having this discussion sooner rather than later may reduce stress and help ensure your parent receives proper care when the need arises.

Let’s explore what power of attorney means, the emotional aspects surrounding it, the different types of power of attorney, and the value of putting it in place before a health scare or some other unplanned event occurs.

What is power of attorney?

Power of attorney (POA) is a legal document that grants an individual the authority to make decisions on behalf of another person. A power of attorney for aging parents ensures continuity of care and clear decision-making when your parent can’t make informed decisions due to physical or mental incapacity.

Estate attorney David Reischer says the power of attorney goes hand in hand with a living will because it “allows a person to make their intent known in anticipation of a possible future moment when intent cannot be communicated.”

Reischer explains that having both a living will and durable power of attorney ensures a trusted representative has the authority to make healthcare decisions when a parent is no longer able to.

When should you create a power of attorney?

Generally speaking, a power of attorney for your aging parent should be in place before it’s needed. Here are three circumstances where you’ll find power of attorney to be an especially valuable tool.

Before a health event occurs

Does your parent have a significant health issue that needs to be managed on an ongoing basis? This could range from a chronic condition such as diabetes or dementia to a terminal illness.

Creating a power of attorney protects your parent – and the family – if they ever become incapacitated. Some families execute a power of attorney before their parent undergoes major surgery just in case of any complications.

To help you assist with finances

Is your elderly parent having trouble paying their bills or managing a budget? A power of attorney can allow you to handle their financial affairs, ensuring your parent’s money stays in good hands.

When it makes life easier for your parent

A power of attorney isn’t always related to future concerns about health or finances. Some older people want a POA as a matter of convenience. For instance, if your parent is out of town and wants to sign some important papers without having to return home, a power of attorney would allow you to act on their behalf.

Benefits of establishing power of attorney in advance

Here are a few compelling reasons to create a power of attorney before it’s needed:

  • Reduced stress: Discussing and establishing power of attorney in advance eliminates the pressure of making these decisions during a health crisis, allowing for thoughtful consideration, legal consultations, and clear communication of wishes – reducing anxiety for everyone.
  • Honoring personal preferences: Establishing power of attorney early makes it possible for parents to express their preferences while they are still capable of providing input on healthcare decisions, financial matters and overall well-being.
  • Family harmony: Power of attorney can be emotionally charged, especially when left until the last minute. Tackling this topic proactively facilitates open and honest discussions as family members collaborate to find common ground and make decisions focused on the best interests of a parent.
  • Sound legal advice: Initiating the power of attorney process early gives families more time to receive guidance from legal professionals experienced in elder law, ensuring that all necessary documents are in place and tailored to individual needs.
  • Taking care of your elderly parents: A power of attorney is an essential legal document – and a whole lot more. You can think of it as an act of love for your parent to make sure they are cared for according to their wishes when they can no longer manage things themselves.

Types of power of attorney

A power of attorney states who can make decisions on behalf of another person. This person is known as an “agent” or “attorney-in-fact.” The rules for a power of attorney vary, so be sure to understand the guidelines for the state you live in.

Powers of attorney can be specific, general or durable:

  • A specific POA only lets the agent manage a defined list of tasks and is usually in place for a limited time. For example, if someone is out of town for an extended period and asks their agent to manage their finances during that time.
  • A general POA provides the agent with more authority, such as managing someone’s affairs on an ongoing basis – but the authority ends when a person becomes unable to make their own decisions.
  • When it comes to an aging parent, you will want to create a durable power of attorney, which gives the agent authority to act on another’s behalf when they become incapacitated. One major benefit of a durable power of attorney is that you will not have to seek court approval to manage your parent’s affairs.

Choosing the right durable power of attorney

Next, you will choose a durable power of attorney that fits your parent’s needs. Here is a brief look at the options:

  • Financial power of attorney for aging parents: With a financial power of attorney, your parent grants you the right to direct their financial affairs. The financial POA can specify which matters you can handle – like paying bills or managing retirement accounts – or it might be broader in scope. Your parent might grant you authority to carry out their wishes for one activity or give you far broader authority. The power of attorney spells out exactly what the duties are, from paying your parent’s bills to running their business.
  • Medical power of attorney for elderly parents: A medical power of attorney empowers you to make medical decisions for your parent. These decisions are spelled out in a medical directive or living will, which details your parent’s medical care preferences. A medical directive may be combined with a healthcare directive or medical power of attorney. These documents clearly state what sort of treatment your parent wants so you can honor their desires. This helps reduce anxiety for the family during stressful times.
  • Keep in mind that it’s smart to update a power of attorney as needed.

Establishing a power of attorney and family dynamics

Signing over authority to make decisions can evoke feelings of vulnerability and loss of control. Your parent might see it as surrendering their independence and an acknowledgement of declining health.

As a caregiver, you may struggle to address the subject because you don’t want to cause discomfort or resentment. However, it’s far worse to avoid this discussion, as it can have serious consequences during a health crisis. For example, should your parent become incapacitated without a power of attorney in place, you might have to seek court approval to manage their affairs.

So, how do you set the stage for a successful POA discussion?

First, when speaking about powers of attorney, frame the discussion around your parent’s point of view. Instead of telling them what they should do, explain that you want to get their input so you can help them make the best choices. Avoid criticizing your parent or pressuring them.

Second, if you already have a history of helping your parent with everyday matters like doctors’ appointments or visits with a lawyer, they probably know you care about their welfare and that they can trust you. That trust will go a long way in having a productive conversation about the future.

Atria Senior Living empowers families with peace of mind

As a leading provider of senior living communities, Atria knows all about difficult conversations, including the vital importance of establishing power of attorney for you and your parent. In addition to being a great place to live, Atria communities can provide a wealth of valuable resources for older adults. Contact your local community to learn more about legal resources in your area.

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Not sure where to start?

Whether you’ve provided care for a parent for years or are just starting to notice signs of cognitive decline in a spouse, caregiving comes with challenges every step of the way. Explore our five areas of the journey for tailored support along your path.

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