Take charge of your future now

Posted: Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Senior News By Marianne Mills

Mrs. Smith, age 63 and considered quite healthy, suddenly suffered a devastating stroke. She was found by a neighbor and the ambulance rushed her to the hospital for care. As a result of the stroke, she could not feed herself, toilet, bathe or dress herself and had difficulty communicating. She could not walk steadily and was not safe to be discharged home alone. No documents could be located indicating a family member or friend who could care for her or where she would like to go in case she needed 24-hour care.

In addition, Mrs. Smith had no way to pay for 24-hour care and the only nursing facility in Juneau, Wildflower Court, was full. With nowhere to go, she spent weeks in the hospital. Without family members or friends authorized to make arrangements, the hospital staff went through a lengthy court process to establish public guardianship. The court-appointed guardian eventually placed her in a nursing home in the Seattle area where she had no family members, friends or familiar surroundings.

In this situation, Mrs. Smith's power to decide who would care for her, where she would live, and who would control her money and belongings was cut short by a crisis - and the fact that she had not planned in advance. "Most people are not prepared for needing 24-hour care; they wait until the crisis hits and then arrangements are made for them, hurriedly, often without knowing the patient's wishes," explains Betty Stidolph, utilization review coordinator at Bartlett Regional Hospital. "Know what your options are and figure out what your plan is while you still can," advises Betty.

While one never knows what kind of medical catastrophe might strike, there is a lot people can do now to make decisions about future care needs. Important elements of planning for long- term care include the following: 1) Financial: Understand what your health insurance or long-term care insurance covers. Don't assume that Medicare or your private insurance will pay for your care. Make arrangements for someone you trust to handle your finances should you become incapacitated.

2) Location: Where do you want to retire and what facilities are nearby? What services are available in Juneau? Resources are limited in Southeast Alaska and facilities are much less expensive down south. Is family in Juneau or elsewhere? Where are your closest friends located?

3) Type of care: Do you have a family member or friend willing to provide 24-hour care at home? Is your home set up to accommodate someone with disabilities? If you wish to stay in Alaska, make sure your name is on the Pioneers Home waiting list the day you turn 65. Put in writing your wishes pertaining to the type of health care you want in case you become incapacitated.

4) Durable Power of Attorney: Have someone you trust authorized to speak on your behalf should you become unable to do so. Who would you want to make life-altering decisions for you? Have honest conversations with family and friends about your wishes. Make sure legal documents are in a readily available place.

"Don't wait until you or your loved one is 80," advises Betty. "If you have repeated health-care problems, it is recommended you develop a plan now should your condition worsen." Being prepared in one's 50s or 60s rather than waiting until age 70 or 80 is wise, even for those in the greatest of health. Seniors or their family members are encouraged to call the Senior and Caregiver Resource Center at 463-6177 for assistance in finding out options available and developing such a plan.

• Marianne Mills is the Program Director for Southeast Senior Services, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS assists all persons regardless of their faith.

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