When Linda Johnson’s husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several years ago, the couple realized that a time would come, eventually, when he would no longer be able to make decisions for himself. As difficult as that reality was to face, they also knew it was important to put a few provisions in place before that time came.
Linda found an attorney in Napa, but was told their services would cost upwards of $700. It would be difficult to make their way down the valley – let alone to afford that kind of price tag. Thankfully, Linda learned soon after that the UpValley Family Centers regularly brings a Legal Aid attorney up to work with clients in Calistoga. UVFC’s Senior Services Manager set up an appointment for Linda and her husband, and the attorney, Kristi Lesnewich, put together a will and a power of attorney designation for each of them—and all at no cost.
Wills, advance directives, and powers of attorney can be difficult things to talk about. It brings up the prospect of illness, death, and other challenges — things none of us like to imagine for ourselves and our loved ones. “Sometimes people worry that by just talking about such things they’ll make them a reality,” says Elena Mendez, UVFC’s Senior Services Manager. “They don’t want to see themselves needing these kinds of documents.” But as Linda and her husband realized, these types of legal documents can serve as important and powerful tools to make sure your wishes are respected if and when a time comes when you are not or no longer able to make decisions for yourself. A last will and testament, as most of us know, outlines how you’d like to distribute your assets after your death. A power of attorney and advance directive aren’t as well-known—but they’re just as important.
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A power of attorney, or POA, is a legal document that authorizes another person (called an “agent”) to make important decisions on your behalf. The scope and duration of a POA can vary widely, which means they can be specified to any number of needs or circumstances. Some POAs, for example, enable an agent to manage your bank accounts while you’re out of the country; others empower another person to make medical decisions on your behalf when you’re no longer able to do so yourself. This kind of POA can be used in conjunction with an advance directive, or living will, which specifies what kind of life-sustaining treatments you would or would not like to receive if you’re in critical condition and unable to make your wishes known.
Once in place, a will, power of attorney, and/or advance directive can provide comfort and clarity during difficult times. Linda felt a deep sense of relief, knowing that everything was in place when indeed the time came for important decisions to be made about her husband’s healthcare that he was no longer able to make for himself. She put the legal documents up on the fridge so they’d be clearly visible to every health provider and caregiver who entered their house, and allowed herself simply to focus on being with her husband.
As with any legal document, it is important to enter into any power of attorney arrangement with careful forethought, however. Because it confers significant decision-making power, a POA can be misused if it ends up in the wrong hands — and these kinds of documents have been involved in cases of elder abuse. But if the designated agent is someone you know well and trust to act in your best interest, a power of attorney and advance directive can be valuable tools in safeguarding and honoring your wishes.
Both because they’re so valuable — and because they can be misused — it’s important to talk about wills, powers of attorney, and advance directives. It’s equally important to make sure that everyone has access to high quality and affordable legal services.
UpValley Family Centers partners with the Napa Office of Bay Area Legal Aid and Honoring Choices Napa Valley to provide regular presentations and workshops about these types of decisions and documents for seniors in Calistoga. These information sessions are held in both English and Spanish, and aim to meet attendees where they are, making space for the cultural, social, and emotional issues that can arise when talking about end of life matters and other difficult subjects.
UVFC continues to provide seniors with important information about these and other issues during the coronavirus pandemic. If you’d like to learn more about UVFC’s senior programs or the Legal Aid services that may be available through UVFC offices, please call (707) 341-3185.