"Dementia" is an umbrella term describing a variety of diseases and conditions that develop when nerve cells in the brain die or no longer function normally. The death or malfunction of these nerve cells, called neurons, causes changes in one's memory, behavior and ability to think clearly. Alzheimers disease is the most common form of dementia, making up as much as 80 percent of dementia in elderly persons. Ultimately, after losing one's quality of life, Alzheimers leads to death. In fact it is the fifth leading cause of death in person over age 65 and it is the only cause of death in the top ten that has little treatment, ability to slow progression, or cure.
The statistics are alarming. According to the Alzheimers Association, one in eight adults over age 65 in the U.S. develop Alzheimers and for adults over age 85, that rises to 50%. For women, the odds of developing Alzheimers are worse--up to one in six will develop the disease. Currently, there are thought to be 5.7 million people in the U.S. suffering from Alzheimers and by 2050 that number is expected to nearly triple.
Obviously, we all hope and pray for a treatment and a cure. But in the meantime, what can we do to deal with Alzheimers and related forms of dementia? Certainly one step would be to make sure we have our legal house in order. At an absolute minimum, every adult--and particularly those over 50--should have the following:
- Durable Power of Attorney
- Power of Attorney for Healthcare (also sometimes called a Designation of Healthcare Surrogate)
- Declaration of Living Will
The Durable Power of Attorney allow you to appoint a person or persons who can act for you on business, personal and financial matters in the event of your incapacity. Without this document, if you become incapacitated, a court-ordered Guardianship will have to be established.
The Power of Attorney for Healthcare allows you to appoint a person or persons who can make medical and healthcare decisions for you in the event of your incapacity. It is crucial that the instrument have the necessary HIPAA release language so that your representative may communicate with your physicians and healthcare providers.
A Declaration of Living Will is an "end-of-life" document which allows you to express your desires in the event of your having a terminal illness, an end-stage condition or are in a permanent vegetative state. You can also appoint a person or persons who can speak for you on end-of-life issues if you are unable to do so. Once again, HIPAA release language must be included.
The key to having all of these instruments in place is to establish them ahead of time--before dementia sets in. In order to validly execute a legal instrument, you must have the mental and cognitive capacity to do so. Waiting until Alzheimers or dementia sets in may prevent you and your loved ones from having the protection you need.
Because of the importance of a Durable Power of Attorney, a Power of Attorney for Healthcare, and a Declaration of Living Will, see an experienced estate planning attorney. Don't risk doing it yourself--remember the old adage, "A person who acts as their own attorney has a fool for a client!"