How to Care for an Aging Parent

Legal Considerations for Long-term Care

Advance medical directives ensure your end-of-life wishes are carried out.
Advance medical directives ensure your end-of-life wishes are carried out.


An essential part of long-term health care planning involves a trip to an attorney's office. Advance medical directives are legal documents that let your loved ones know what to do should a medical emergency arise. A living will spells out what degree of life-sustaining measures or life support you want. It can be uncomfortable to think about whether you want a feeding tube in your last days, but facts like these must be considered. A health care proxy designates a person to make medical decisions for you, should you be unable to make them yourself.

­For non-health-related matters, aging parents might want to consider a power of attorney, which appoints someone to perform tasks such as writing checks or paying bills should you be unable to do so. And if you have very specific ideas about who should get your money and possessions, then you'll want to get a will or discuss the idea of setting up a trust. Caregivers should know the location of all these documents; after all, if the living will is stuck in a safe-deposit box that no one can access, then no one can guarantee that the aging person will receive the care he or she desires.

So far, we're assuming that the aging parents can be a part of these legal conversations, but should they decline before talks about a living will or power of attorney can take place, then a caregiver might have to consider going to court to obtain a guardianship. When a caregiver holds guardianship over a parent, he or she has the legal authority to make decisions on everything from financial matters to life-sustaining treatments (a conservatorship, by comparison, only provides authority over the finances). As you might imagine, guardianships can spark bitter arguments among siblings, particularly if one feels that the other is after Mom's money. If conflicts arise, you might need to seek out a mediator.

If you're a caregiver assisting a parent through this process, use this time to get your own legal documents. Likely, caregiving will give you many ideas of how you yourself want to be treated in your old age, and providing these documents to your own family will save you time and worry later.