By William B. Howell
ROLE REVERSAL—WHEN THE CHILD BECOMES THE PARENT
We all have our image of ourselves in relation to our parents. It is probably one of obedience and respect. We were taught not to talk back and not to ask unnecessary questions, but to obey. That was acceptable when we were, in fact, much younger, but now that we have matured, are in our middle years, and our parents have truly become elders, that picture no longer applies.
Now our parents may be becoming forgetful, or becoming infirm physically, which leads in some cases to a fearfulness of things that in prior years would have given them no concern. These are very real changes, and they have to be addressed in the relationship of parent and child. In order to make the life of the parent better and to make the life of the child easier, we cling to the old relationship, but at our peril.
Make certain that, as you need to take over for your parent, you have the actual authority. Many people rely upon a skimpy one- or two-page power of attorney and think that will do the job. There are several omissions that will make such a document faulty and hobble your ability to do things on behalf of your parent. Specifically, if there is real estate involved, and most particularly if it is homestead real property, you need to have the actual legal description of the property and the specific authority set out within the power of attorney, and the power of attorney needs to be recorded at the courthouse. Recording is always a wise thing to do under any circumstances, because you may need multiple “true” copies of the power of attorney. It is much easier to get an attested copy from the chancery clerk’s office than it is to keep track of countless originals. Also, there is the problem of some banks and others not honoring a power of attorney. That can be overcome by having a living trust rather than, or in addition to, a power of attorney.
Of course, our parents, ourselves, and just about everyone else, need an Advance Health-Care Directive to be able to specify what it is that we do and do not want done for our care from a medical standpoint, particularly in the latter stages of life. This is a most useful document, but one that, strangely, many people do not have. It is easy to obtain and, again, should be recorded and copies given out to the persons who are involved, including your physician and decision makers. Make certain that it includes provisions under HIPAA (the federal medical privacy regulations).
Finally, ask about and learn about in detail your parents’ finances. This applies regardless of how wealthy or how little they may have. Knowledge of their financial situation is crucial when you are the one going to be called upon to make the decisions regarding possible nursing home placement, independent living, or other arrangements. There is no substitute for knowledge, and the biggest impediment to gaining that knowledge is the child’s own reluctance and fear of being perceived by the parent as prying, when all the child is attempting to do is to gain the necessary knowledge to provide meaningful assistance in seeing to the care of the parent. They usually will understand this unless the parent is into advanced paranoia, in which case this inquiry should have been done a long time ago. It is imperative that you have a handle on the financial aspect.
Parenting a parent is a daunting task, especially with the baggage that most of us carry with us regarding our relationship to our parents. But, it is so very important, and it may well be your final expression of love to your mother or father.
William B. Howell is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and practices with the law firm of Howell Kyle & Wynn in Ridgeland.