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Facing Senior Mental Health Deterioration as a Family

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

Facing senior mental health deterioration as a family requires a lot of compassion, thought, and early preparation. We all hope and pray we never have to face certain issues associated with age, but the reality is that many families will deal with some degree of dementia.

Legal Preparation

My first piece of advice is to communicate. Talk with your children and potential decision-makers before you are suffering issues with mental acuity. We can each make decisions ahead of illness, if we are competent by legal standards in our respective states, about who will make decisions and how we choose to be cared for in the event of mental deterioration. If we slip past legal competence without putting plans and legal documents in place, and preparing our loved ones, we lose some of the control and self-determination most of us value so much. I cannot stress this step enough.

As estate planning attorneys, my husband and I have seen many times when people wait too long to get the proper legal documents in place before mental health issues become a serious concern. What’s the risk and cost of waiting? You may not have the opportunity to share your preferences for treatment and care. Your family may have no guidance on how to handle your care and feel guilt for decisions they must make. The cost of managing your situation may be greatly increased, too. When you don’t act prior to mental health issues arising, your family may be forced to go through court proceedings.  Where you will be declared legally incompetent and have a guardian appointed. What was a simple fix prior to incompetence, becomes much more complicated and costly after you are no longer able to sign legal documents.

An important consideration is that family disagreements become more likely when you aren’t proactive, too. This can be an extremely stressful and difficult time for your spouse, children, and maybe even older grandchildren. Disagreements about your care can be divisive among family members and create long-term relationship breakdowns. Most of us would never want this to occur as a result of decisions being made about our care. The more we can make decisions ahead of time and communicate our preferences to those we love, the more likely it is that family disagreements will be avoided.

Personal Preparation for Senior Mental Health Deterioration

On a more personal level, don’t delay in gathering family mementos and historical information. If you’ve thought of writing a memoir or family stories, do it now, not later. Sort and label family photos while you and other elder family members are able to note people and events in them. Capture the big family moments and memories when life lessons were learned. You can memorialize them with writing and photos. Perhaps you might want to think ahead to important events your grandchildren will experience, like graduations and marriages. Prepare cards and gifts for those times. You may deliver them in person, but if you’re not able to do so, it will be a wonderful and meaningful surprise at the appropriate time.

We’ve seen this type of pre-planning play out in real life. It’s beautiful, poignant, and much appreciated by family members.

Finally, discussing potential issues with family members and planning ahead for passing down family memories and mementos as we age sets the stage for many multi-generational blessings. Including older, mature grandchildren in the process of our aging gives them a sense of family belonging. It teaches them lessons like honor, dignity, and family duty. Culturally in the last few decades, we’ve strayed from some of the sense of duty to elders. As we saw in the pandemic, that wasn’t great. Families have responded admirably in drawing a little closer as a result of our time of isolation. Let’s choose to keep the trend going and bring younger generations into extremely important life-planning matters.

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