By Emily Martin, Esq.
For those of us who have aging parents, it can be difficult to tell if there is a problem, or if your parent is developing dementia. One day, Mom may be fine, but the next day, you find her keys in the freezer. Is she really losing it, or is it natural forgetfulness?
The “grey zone” is the difficult place between being able to make decisions and being unable to manage your own affairs. Many times, when seniors start to experience cognitive decline, it is often a gradual decline. Someone who is diagnosed with dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, may not immediately lose the capacity to make financial and legal decisions. However, it is often hard to tell when the time has come for someone else to take over these decisions for them.
With an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, the judgment needed to make good financial decisions can be impaired even at the beginning of the disease. Even if your parent looks and feels fine and acts normally, the truth is that those who suffer from dementia are less able to tell when something is not quite right about a financial offer or business proposal. This can create a multitude of issues, including arguments among family members and from the senior himself. Some family members may argue that Dad has always been in charge of the bills and has always made the investment decisions. They may be afraid of stepping on Dad’s toes when Dad is still able to understand that his decision-making capabilities are being taken away. On the other hand, Dad himself might object to no longer being able to handle his finances. He may become paranoid and begin to accuse family members of trying to “take his money.”
Another potential issue is that those with cognitive impairment are vulnerable to financial abuse – whether it be from family members, scam artists, or caregivers. When people are in the early stages of dementia, it can be easy to overlook this type of problem, especially if the impairment is not immediately obvious from speaking with the person. The fact is that dementia can cause the brain to undergo changes without any outward physical signs of a problem.
So what is the solution for these problems? Even in the early stages of dementia, it is vitally important that your parent appoint someone else to take over the handling of financial matters through a financial power of attorney. If you wait until your parent has completely lost the ability to make financial decisions, you may have to pursue a conservatorship instead – a months-long process that can cost thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees and filing fees.
Another useful solution is for the family to have a neutral third party determine that your parent is unable to make decisions. Have a qualified neuropsychologist conduct testing that will determine what Mom’s condition is and how it will impact her decision-making ability in the future. This way, if Mom argues that nothing is wrong with her, the information about her illness will be coming from someone other than her children or family members.
Finally, another suggestion is holding regular family meetings with a neutral person such as a mediator to help prevent arguments among family members from interfering with what is the best decision for your parent. This can be especially helpful, if one child does not think it is necessary for someone to take over the parent’s finances, or if the parent is arguing that he/she is not incapacitated.
In order to make sure that you and your loved ones are protected before there is an issue with the ability to handle financial and legal decisions, it is important that you meet with an experienced elder law attorney who can advise you on the best plan for your unique situation.
Ask Kit Kat: Wolf Pups at Play
Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about what scientists have learned about wolf pups that play fetch, just like regular dogs?
Kit Kat: Well, as usual, science does tell us some interesting things that may have crossover applicability to other species. Although it was a very small sample of only 13 wolf pups, Christina Hansen Wheat and Hans Temrin, biologists at Stockholm University made the following observation—three eight-week old wolf puppies retrieved a ball thrown by a stranger, without any training. The significance of this, according to Hansen Wheat and Temrin, is that this indicates that sociability in wolves has been present for a very long time. Dogs evolved from wolves, but the scientists theorize, that dogs’ ability to engage with humans evolved not through domestication, but was present early on through the genetic material they inherited from wolves. Elinor Karlsson at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, who also studies the genetics of dogs, concurs when she says, “I think we too often assume that things we observe in dogs are special and unique, without ever really ever proving that.” Though only 3 of the 13 wolf pups fetched, which may seem like a small number, the scientists still think it is significant. They further observe that not all dogs fetch. I personally can attest to that. My mother had a collie growing up named Prince. He was a wonderful dog, great with children, but he never would fetch a stick or ball.
The scientists also point out that the evolution of different breeds of dogs like the short legs of Corgis and dachshunds—resulted from human interference. Another dog characteristic—the ability to digest starch better than wolves—came about from the increase in the number of copies of a specific gene. This occurred through evolution, rather than domestication. Scientists like these will continue to investigate the differences between wolves and dogs, and how genes and human intervention play a role in each species’ development. (James Gorman, “What Wolf Pups That Play Fetch Reveal About Your Dog,” The New York Times, Jan. 16, 2020)