May 19, 2009

While we wait for a cure...

Kudos to Home Box Office and the Alzheimer's Association for bringing us The Alzheimer's Project. This thoughtful and timely program explores the disease, its causes, potential cures, its impact on families. You can't see it and not be touched.

The program really gives you an idea of the massive scope of the problem. In South Florida, where my elder law firm is based, the local Alzheimer's Association estimates that as many as 200,000 people have the disease - and that's not counting all the family members and caregivers also affected. Nationwide, someone develops the disease every 70 SECONDS. The program does a commendable job of examining potential medical breakthroughs in the pipeline. It's altogether possible we'll have a cure in the not-too-distant future. But right now, the hard reality is that there is no cure.

Individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and their loved ones must get legal advice, not just medical advice. Alzheimer's Disease impacts every area of life, and has major legal and financial ramifications. My advice to these individuals and their loved ones is always to prepare, prepare, prepare. The disease is progressive, so the sooner the preparations begin, the more likely the patient/client will be competent enough to participate in the planning process. This is not a time to procrastinate!

Whenever there is a diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease, there is the possibility that the individual may require long-term care sometime in the future. No one can say when it may be needed or for how long, but one thing is sure: Long-term care costs are beyond the reach of most families. If the patient has long-term care insurance, great. If not, it's time to sit down with a Certified Elder Law Attorney to discuss strategies for preserving assets. Florida Medicaid benefits and/or Veterans benefits may be available.

At a minimum, the patient should have a legally sound Power of Attorney for Health Care. This document will empower one or more individuals to make medical decisions for the patient when the time comes that he is no longer able to do so. A Property Power of Attorney, also known as a Durable Power of Attorney, should also be created, so someone can handle the individual's business affairs in the future.

And let's not forget the spouse of the patient. I often see spouses who are so caught up in their affected partner's planning that they forget their own: For example, a wife whose husband has advanced dementia but who is still named as her Personal Representative in her last will and testament. Or a husband whose health care documents empower his now cognitively impaired wife to make his medical decisions. This is a time for both spouses to examine their life plans and their estate plans, and to get ready for what's ahead.

As an attorney I can't cure the disease. I dearly wish I could. But by helping my clients with their financial and legal planning, I'm gratified to know I'm helping make a difficult journey just a little more bearable.

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