Do my aging parents need a guardian?
Seeing your parent age and deteriorate to the point that you are now responsible for their care can be devastating. The roles are reversed, leaving you unprepared and overwhelmed by the financial as well as physical and emotional responsibility required to ensure that your parent is safe.
Ideally, however, when the time comes that your parent is incapacitated, they have established either a durable power of attorney or medical directive, which outlines who is responsible for their care. If not, your parent’s incapacity may leave you scrambling and attempting to establish guardianship or conservatorship.
Steps to Determine Whether Your Parent Needs a Guardian
The signs of aging and diminished physical and mental capacity can be difficult to detect. Additionally, your parent may not think that they need help, may be unaware that they need help, or may simply want to remain independent and not bother you with their care.
To avoid a traumatic event or sudden emotional distress, which necessitates immediate intervention, it’s important to monitor your parent’s daily mental and physical abilities and put an action plan in place before it is needed.
So, how do you determine whether your parents need help? Let’s look at the top three signs.
1. Your parent cannot provide their own physical care.
One of the first signs that your parent’s ability to care for themselves is deteriorating is when they are no longer able to perform their daily physical activities. For example, can they dress, groom and bathe themselves? Can they go to the bathroom without assistance? Do they need assistance with eating or walking?
Subtle signs that their physical capacity may be diminishing can include weight loss, a disheveled appearance, bruises, a dirty house, the smell of urine in their house, unopened mail, carpet stains and unfilled prescriptions.
Physical incapacity, however, is not the same as mental incapacity. If your parent simply needs help caring for their physical needs, you may not need to intervene in every aspect of their life but simply structure the guardianship to allow you to get them the assistance that they need to complete their activities of daily living.
2. Your parent has a diminished mental capacity.
If your parent has suffered an injury or has an illness such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, they may have a deteriorating mental capacity and be unable to perform certain daily tasks.
Common signs that your parent may have a cognitive limitation and need help may include: confusion, memory loss, the inability to reason through common problems, and the inability to perform tasks such as paying bills.
For example, does your parent get lost? Do they say the same thing over and over? Do they forget where they are or who you are? Do they have trouble completing sentences?
Diminished mental capacity is often accompanied by diminished physical capabilities, so if you do decide to intervene for mental reasons, it’s important to also identify any support services that your parent needs to maintain their mental as well as physical well-being.
3. Your parents have diminished financial capabilities.
Frequently, we hear stories about how the elderly are scammed and criminals have stolen their money. Unfortunately, the elderly are often a target of criminals because they may have more wealth, be more trusting, or have diminished mental capabilities.
If you believe that your parent might be a target for fraudulent or criminal activity, it might be time to intervene.
How does the court determine when to appoint a guardian?
If you have noticed your parent’s mental, physical or financial incapacity, it might be time to go to court and have the court appoint you as the guardian. As mentioned above, guardianship (or conservatorship, as it is called in some states) is only done if your parent does not have an advanced directive or durable power of attorney already in place.
State laws will determine how a guardian is appointed, but generally the steps are as follows:
1. File an application for Appointment of Permanent Guardian.
2. File the application in the county where the proposed ward resides.
3. Provide the court with documentation of a thorough examination performed by a physician.
4. The citation is served to the proposed ward by the court.
5. An investigation is completed by the court to determine guardianship responsibilities. A report is then filed with the court.
6. Attend the guardianship hearing.
7. The court will review the information and determine whether a guardian should be appointed and, if so, what responsibilities the guardian will have.
What will I do as the guardian?
Courts have the authority to limit your rights and responsibilities as a guardian. The courts will generally try to establish the guardianship to allow the person cared for, often referred to as the "ward," as much freedom and independence as possible. With this in mind, depending on the capabilities of your parent, the court may decide that a limited guardianship is appropriate.