• “Does Mom want to live in a nursing home?”
  • “Does Dad consider living with Alzheimer’s or dementia to be good quality of life?”
  • “Is there legal documentation in place for someone to act financially on Mom or Dad’s behalf if they are unable to?”

These are just three of many questions that elder care attorneys continually urge adult children to ask their parents before a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia is made. Without the answers to such questions, families could be left battling over long-term care, struggling financially, and not truly honoring their parent’s wishes should the disease strike unexpectedly.

Many families avoid talking about Alzheimer’s or dementia until it’s too late. Especially from a legal standpoint, if you don’t know your parents’ wishes or the documentation that they have (or don’t have) in place, you could be left with a huge mess on your hands in the wake of these debilitating diseases.

That’s why adult children need to have five specific conversations with their parents as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

1. Long-term care preferences 

Does Mom or Dad want to live in a nursing home, or would they prefer in-home care if the need presented itself? If they prefer a facility, what amenities and activities are important to them at this point in their life? If they want to live alone in their home, will that suit their personality, or will loneliness and depression result? These are questions that, if discussed in advance, can make the transition into an assisted living facility or a home-health care program much easier on everyone when the time comes.

2. Current legal documentation

It’s imperative that adult children find out what legal documentation their parents have in place before incapacity occurs. This includes making sure their parents have a financial durable power of attorney, a health care directive, and HIPAA documents, so that someone can easily step in to make financial and/or medical decisions on their behalf. Otherwise, the family will be forced to petition a court for control over their parent’s affairs, if they have passed the point of legal capacity.

3. Medical preferences and wishes

Adult children are urged to find out what type and how much medical care their parents want after receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Do they have specific wishes about life support or other end-of life medical treatments? Whom do they want to make such decisions on their behalf? The answers to these questions will help your parents to feel secure knowing their wishes will be carried out during an otherwise emotionally charged time.

4. Current state of financial affairs

To ensure that finances stay properly managed after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia, adult children should start asking tough questions about their parent’s financial affairs. This includes finding out the locations of any safety deposit boxes, bank accounts, investment or brokerage accounts, long-term care insurance, outstanding debts, and assets unknown to the family. Otherwise, assets needed to cover long-term care or other expenses could be overlooked when memory loss ultimately occurs.

5. Important contacts and information

While their memory is sharp, aging parents should work with their adult children to compile a list of important contacts and information that will be useful to the family if memory loss occurs. This includes documenting key doctors, professional advisors (e.g., accountant, attorney, financial advisor), and important passwords for online accounts.

While these conversations are certainly not easy to have, families can make the transition into living with Alzheimer’s or dementia much easier by simply planning ahead. Not to mention the fact that Mom or Dad will appreciate your willingness to make sure their wishes are honored if (or when) incapacity occurs.

Of course, if, after having these tough conversations, you find that Mom or Dad is not truly protected from a legal standpoint if Alzheimer’s or dementia should occur, it is best to contact a qualified and knowledgeable elder law attorney for help.

About the Author

R. Christine Brown is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), the South Bay Bar Association’s Probate and Estate Planning Section, and a number of community organizations serving the needs of older adults. In addition to her law practice, South Bay Elder Law, Christine is the mom of two busy teenagers and volunteers for California Superior Court Probate Departments and California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform (CANHR).