Imagine you visit your father on a regular basis. You have no concerns and all is well. Until something changes. You notice that his medication bottles go unopened or maybe they empty far too quickly. Perhaps he forgets your name or calls you by the name of a sibling. You notice that his hygiene has declined because he forgets to shower or brush his teeth. Then one day, you notice bruises on his leg or a cut on his arm that is poorly bandaged. Either he cannot remember how his injuries happened or his story makes no sense.
You can offer to help or to hire someone to help, but your parent adamantly refuses any help you offer. If you are truly concerned that your aging parent is no longer able to safely care for themselves, it is time to consider seeking guardianship.
The difference between guardianship and a Healthcare Power of Attorney
In a perfect world, your parent will have already named you as the person they trust to make decisions for them. A Healthcare Power of Attorney is a document where one person gives another the right to make healthcare decisions for them if they become incapacitated. This is a document initiated and signed by the person assigning that right to another. While it is a prudent decision for every adult to establish a Healthcare Power of Attorney when they create a will as part of smart estate planning, many do not. When a parent or loved one develops dementia without a POA in place, you must file for guardianship over them in order to gain the right to make decisions for them. A judge grants guardianship through a court proceeding.
How to gain guardianship
To gain guardianship over an adult is essentially to take away their rights to make their own decisions. It is a very big deal and requires a court proceeding to ensure that there is no abuse or manipulation involved. You must provide proof of the incapacitation and proof of your ability to be a trusted, competent guardian for them. An evaluation by a psychologist proves incapacitation, and it is often done ahead of the court proceedings. The judge uses the court proceedings to determine whether you are an appropriate guardian. You must prove that you are trustworthy and that you understand the responsibilities you will be undertaking as a guardian. Consult an Elder Law attorney before filing a petition for guardianship as they are familiar with the process and know what your local court expects.
Guardianship does not only involve healthcare decisions, though healthcare concerns are often the trigger that starts the process. When you become a guardian for your parent, you essentially reverse roles with them, making all decisions for them. You are responsible for their living situation, their finances, their healthcare and any long-term care decisions. Filing for guardianship can cause friction in your family so make certain you are ready before choosing this path.