Becoming a parent to a parent a difficult task, especially from afar

Posted: Friday, January 10, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) -- As her mother has aged, Debbie Stacy has found herself gradually becoming a parent to her own parent.

Rose McKechnie, 75, is a former podiatrist in the north London suburb of Stevenage. When McKechnie's husband died six years ago, Stacy taught her mother how to pay bills and manage a monthly budget. When her health faltered, Stacy helped her retire.

''It's a complete role reversal,'' Stacy said. ''I've become the mother and she's become the daughter.''

After Stacy, 42, married an American and moved to Tampa, Fla., she was confronted with a more complex situation -- handling her mother's financial and medical affairs from more than 4,000 miles away. It's a problem faced by a growing number of baby boomers in a mobile society.

Caring for older parents beset by physical and sometimes mental maladies is a job that requires planning, especially when children live far away. But many boomers and their parents often don't think ahead.

''Elder law practitioners out there have a lot of clients who show up only when a crisis happens,'' said Charles P. Sabatino, a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

''Mom or Dad's sort of been on the borderline and then there's a fall and they break a hip or there's a stroke, and suddenly they're looking long-term care in the eye,'' he said.

Lenise Dolen, president of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, said, ''If you wait until a relative becomes frail and needs help and is asking for help, then you may have waited too long.'' Her group represents professionals who help senior citizens and their families manage long-term care.

Experts recommend boomers, whether they live nearby or far away, start talking with parents early about the need for planning. Parents should consider executing documents such as durable powers of attorney, which allow adult children to handle parents' financial and legal affairs, and living wills or health care proxies, which authorize children to make decisions on medical care when necessary.

But boomers might find their parents are reluctant to accept their help, fearing a loss of independence. Dolen suggests boomers try to have a conversation about planning, and focus on what they've set up for their own older years.

''If it gets hot, then just leave it for that moment. You leave it, but the seeds are dropped,'' said Dolen, who runs a care management agency in Tarrytown, N.Y. ''Just keep that conversation going, so it turns into a dialogue.''

Adds Nancy Wexler, a Los Angeles care manager, ''Sometimes you have to reframe the discussion, as in, it gives the parent control instead of taking it away.''

Most states allow people to draw up their own power of attorney documents from preprinted forms, although attorneys advise against it, Sabatino said. Health care planning, including living wills, ought to include input from a doctor and financial power of attorney documents should include fraud protections best supplied by a lawyer, he said.

Members of AARP, the senior citizens' lobbying group, can get power of attorney documents for $35 from 1,000 lawyers in the organization's Legal Services Network, and a 20 percent discount on other legal work.

Living far from parents can make it tricky to manage their affairs, unless parents have established living trusts, which are generally the province of the more affluent. A living trust is a legal arrangement in which a trustee -- a child or sibling, for example -- is given title to a person's property for the purpose of managing another's affairs.

The trustee would receive all of a person's financial documents and have the power to make decisions. Lawyers warn, however, that trusts can be expensive.

A professional care manager is another option for those who can afford it. The manager assesses an older person's needs and customizes a care plan appropriate for the circumstances. They charge hourly rates of $75 to $200 depending on location.

Stacy, 42, has her own system for staying on top of her mother's needs.

''I call her literally every day to check up on her. 'Have you taken your pills? Have you taken your doctor's appointments?' If they're going to do a certain procedure with any drugs, have you got a ride home arranged?'''

Longer term, Stacy plans to help her mother immigrate to Florida. It has taken three years for McKechnie to get comfortable about the idea of selling her home and becoming an American resident.

''She wants to come now,'' Stacy said. ''She's finally decided that we've wasted too much time apart.''


On the Net:

AARP Legal Services Network,

National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers,

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