Dementia refers to the loss of cognitive ability to a degree beyond what is expected from normal aging. It is not a specific disease but simply a phrase to collectively refer to a set of symptoms. In later stages of the condition, the affected may have severe impairments, becoming disoriented in time and place. They may also be unable to understand who they are or who is around them. Alzheimer’s disease is perhaps the most common form of dementia, but there are many others including semantic dementia vascular dementia, and dementia with Lewy bodies.
Dementia is far more common among the geriatric population. For example, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, one out of every eight Baby Boomers will get Alzheimer’s disease after they turn 65. However, “early onset dementia” can also occur, affecting those under 65 years old. The risks posed by dementia and the uncertainty with which it strikes makes it common sense for elder law estate planning efforts to be put into place ahead of time to guard against the risks. As a Forbes article notes, the recent passing of veteran newsman Mike Wallace is a reminder of this.
Wallace’s son, news anchor Chris Wallace admitted that his father suffered from dementia in his later years. “Physically, he’s okay. Mentally, he’s not. He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he’s uneven,” the son explained. Our New York elder law estate planning lawyers know that many local residents have families in the same situation. Fortunately for the Wallace family, planning had been conducted to account for this possibility.
Dementia has obvious estate planning consequences. Most clearly, once one loses capacity they generally cannot make changes to their estate plan. If preparations are not made ahead of time, families may face significant challenges in getting the legal authority to make basic decisions for the senior to help with their safety and well-being. Courts and court-appointed guardians often must get involved–a prospect that no family wants to face.
There is an assumption that dementia symptoms arise slowly and so there will be time to make proper plans down the road. A sense of urgency is often lacking. This may be a mistake. For one thing, in some situations families may not notice capacity faltering until it is too late. In addition, there is no way to know what the future holds–it is not at all uncommon for one to suffer a stroke, face a serious fall, or otherwise end up in a state mental disability. Without a plan in place it will be a challenge for the family to take control after the incident to ensure the loved one’s financial, medical, and general well-being.
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