THIS PAST SPRING, my brother Phil made the six-hour trip from our hometown in North Carolina to northern Virginia to visit our 95-year-old aunt, whom we know as Aunt Ina Lou. We hadn’t heard from her in a while, which was unusual.
Since we were children, she’d always sent us Christmas and birthday cards, and she’d missed some recently. Phil tried calling several times, but she hadn’t been answering her phone. This wasn’t particularly surprising since our aunt is almost deaf. Though he wasn’t overly concerned, Phil decided to go see her.
When he arrived, he learned that Aunt Ina Lou was no longer leaving her house or paying her bills. He spoke to some of her neighbors. He found out that one of her much younger neighbors had been writing checks for her to sign, and also buying and delivering her groceries. Other neighbors had been doing her laundry and helping out as much as they could.
Fortunately, they’re honest. Our aunt had practically all her substantial savings in her checking account, so they could have cleaned her out. Her young neighbors were concerned because she clearly needed more help than they could provide. They hadn’t known how to contact any relatives, and Aunt Ina Lou was unable to tell them because of her declining mental faculties.
Phil set about trying to organize our aunt’s bills, which were stashed in a variety of places throughout her house. She had saved years of bills, and organizing them was a monumental task.
I’m a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) tax preparer, so I offered to do her taxes. On a later visit, Phil brought back what records he could find, and I prepared her 2021 taxes. Most of her tax records were kept in the same place, but the last tax returns Phil found were from 2018. On further checking, I verified that she hadn’t done her federal or state taxes in 2019 or 2020.
Phil went back for yet another visit—to go through more of her records and because Aunt Ina Lou’s health seemed to be declining. On this trip, he noticed a large notebook labeled “estate planning documents” squirreled away in one of her rooms. He discovered that in 2015 she’d set up a trust, naming me as the trustee. She’d also listed me as her agent in her financial and medical powers of attorney, and as the executor of her estate.
She had neglected to mention any of this to me.
Aunt Ina Lou never married and has no children. I’m one of her five nephews and nieces, and we’re her nearest living relatives. I had no idea she would name me for all these duties, though—in retrospect—I was a logical choice. The other nephew and the two nieces live in Florida, and I went to business school and have management experience.
Once I learned I’d been named as her agent, I realized I had to take charge of the situation. I consulted over Zoom with a lawyer from the firm that prepared her estate planning documents, and then went to visit Aunt Ina Lou with my brother. Phil noted that her health had declined even more.
Once I saw her, it was clear to me that she required home health care immediately, and she needed to be in an assisted living facility as soon as possible. Using Google, I found an accredited home health provider in the area and arranged for someone to be there with her part-time.
Shortly thereafter, she fell and broke her wrist during the night, when no caregiver was present, so I shifted to 24/7 care. Fortunately, there’s a good assisted living facility near where she lived. Phil and I visited it in July, and we liked it. We took Aunt Ina Lou for her first COVID-19 vaccine, and made arrangements for her to move into assisted living in August.
I ordered an electric hospital bed for her room that was delivered shortly before she moved in. With the help of my wife Sara, and with Phil and his large truck, the three of us moved a selection of her furniture and belongings into her new studio apartment. We set up her room with lots of familiar furnishings.
She’s doing well in her new home, getting the care she needs, and she seems to have adjusted pretty well to the change. I just wish we had been able to get her into assisted living sooner. She spent a lot of time at home alone, not getting the level of care she needed, and living in needless discomfort. Without the assistance of her young neighbors, she likely would have died, as she was beyond being able to ask for help.
The whole process of taking control of my aunt’s finances and moving her into assisted living ended up being a tremendous amount of work for Phil and me. I spent seemingly endless hours getting access to her financial accounts, consolidating accounts, setting up automatic payments for her bills and getting everything in place for her move.
Practically everyone I dealt with needed to have a copy of her power of attorney designation and then have it approved by their legal department. Further, we had to do everything as quickly as possible because our aunt’s mental and physical health had declined so much by the time I learned I was named as her agent.
Had she told me, I would have kept in closer touch, and also given my contact information to her friendly neighbors and someone from her church. Aunt Ina Lou could have been a lot more comfortable and received proper medical care these last few years. All it would have taken was a note in one of those Christmas or birthday cards.
It was great that she had the powers of attorney drawn up, and the trust will make dealing with her estate in Virginia much simpler. But her case is a prime example of why you need to make sure the person you’ve chosen is willing and able to handle your affairs, and also will check back regularly to determine if that becomes necessary. It’s best to notify your designated agent while you still have your wits about you.
If you have elderly relatives, talk to them sooner rather than later about setting up a financial power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a will. Urge them to speak to whomever they have chosen to fulfill these duties. It’s far better to know ahead of time that someone is depending on you—rather than to discover your role in the midst of a crisis.
Brian White is retired from the University of North Carolina, where he worked as a systems programmer and then director of information technology in the computer science department. He likes hiking with his wife in a nearby forest, dancing to rocking blues music, camping with friends and stamp collecting. He also enjoys doing Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) work at the Chapel Hill senior center. Check out Brian’s earlier articles.
Do you enjoy HumbleDollar? Please support our work with a donation. Want to receive daily email alerts about new articles? Click here. How about getting our newsletter? Sign up now.
Thanks greatly Brian for your article and valuable information. It filled in the “chinks” for a similar situation with my mom approaching the same age as your aunt and still living alone. I’m afraid she will never agree to assisted living until it’s at the very last minute. She is constantly being scammed and anyone that calls on the phone asking for money or a donation she freely gives her credit card info to them. We’re forever having to close accounts and reinstate them. Thankfully her local bank is vigilant overseeing her account and lets me know when something suspicious turns up. Still though it’s more than I can manage sometimes.
That sounds like a tough situation. I have access to Aunt Ina Lou’s bank statements, and they don’t show any big withdrawals or other suspicious activity, and there was very little activity on her few credit cards, now all closed.
We did not meet much resistance in moving her to assisted living, though we did not call it that. We never asked if she wanted to move. We told her we were taking her to a nice place where people could care for her all the time, she did not have to negotiate stairs, and we’ll start by setting it up with your stuff. Then we just started moving stuff. We moved her pictures in, the furniture she used most, the towels and clothes and dishes she preferred to use, her curio cabinet, and so on. By this point, the bottom floor of her condo was looking pretty empty, and we just said it is time to look at your new room. Once she got there, we took her to the common dining room and she said “the dining room is like a restaurant!”, with a decent size menu from which to choose, and she seemed to accept her new abode. She has a private room, and people check on her frequently, and they come by regularly to assist her in dressing, bathing, getting down to the dining room. A doctor checks on her periodically, and there is a hair dresser on site, and she get physical, occupational, and communication therapy regularly (covered by Medicare). It’s really an excellent situation for her. So possibly easing her in by taking a lot of her stuff to her new room helped make her comfortable.
My husband’s mom and stepfather are 82 and 80 and live about 400 miles from us. His mom has Alzheimer’s. His stepfather has made my husband, who is an attorney, executor and trustee of their estate and gotten him power of attorney for both of them. We’re traveling down there right after New Year’s and meeting with the estate attorney. So I think we’re in a little bit better shape, but there are still issues. Stepdad is old-school and not great with a computer and doesn’t have their bills and finances automated, and the paperwork isn’t well organized. It’s all tossed in a file box, and at least we know where that is, but if/when the time comes, getting on top of it all is going to be an ordeal.
One thing this article showed me is that we should make sure their neighbors have our contact information. He’s got his wits about him, but he has health issues. He could have a heart attack or stroke, be suddenly out of commission (or deceased), and she’d be completely helpless. We agonize over this, and it’s very hard to talk to him about it.
Their county may have senior services that include having folks with call lists who call the people on the list daily to see if they are okay and check on them (or have deputies check on them) if they don’t answer or don’t sound right. Orange County, NC has such a service.
I’ve lived in my neighborhood many years and several times have been involved in assisting a neighbor in decline. It’s not easy, even with good communication and everyone’s best intentions. Your aunt must have been a wonderful neighbor, as others rallied around to shop and do laundry. And you have made the necessary changes according to her trust document that you didn’t know existed earlier. Especially thoughtful to make sure her new studio apartment is filled with her familiar things.
Even when everyone is in the know, even when there’s able family close by, there can be disagreement on what’s to be done, and the right time to make changes. This means already tough conversations can become unbearable. Sometimes people decide it’s easier to just give a spare key to a neighbor.
A friend sent me “The Croak Book: Living with the End in Mind”. Then I read “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” It’s actuarially likely I’ll be around for a couple decades more. But I’m committed to an orderly demise. It’s hard to routinely pare down possessions, and occasionally send off items to friends and family now, rather than have anyone fight over things later. This is an intermittent task I started after my spouse died almost 4 years ago. And while we had most things in order then, there’s still a lot of accumulated life and goods to disperse/donate. The “decumulation” phase of life is more than setting up a withdrawal rate for retirement savings!
Another book that helps “decumulation” is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. A widow with a great sense of humor wrote this. / Right now, I’m working on an “I’m dead” list of things for my wife or someone who has to handle the estate. It’s amazing how many steps there are in the process. Not fun to think about but inevitable so it helps to be a bit pragmatic.
I am mid 70s, single with no kids, and my closest relatives live in England, so I have been aware that I need to have plans in place for the not-too-distant future. I took care of the will, financial POA and healthcare POA a couple of years back. Equally important, I plan to move to a CCRC next year, I would not want to rely on my neighbors if I had a medical emergency, never mind in the event of cognitive decline.
My wife and I have no kids, and we’re on the list to move into a CCRC, too. I’m 68 now, and I expect a room like what we want will become available in about seven years. I think a lot of neighbors will keep an eye on each other, in addition to the staff.
I enjoyed your article as I had an Aunt we called “Ana Lou” who would have been 95 this year but she passed away in 2017. She was a retired schoolteacher who never had kids but had over 20 nieces and nephews she stayed in touch with. Most had elderly parents they were helping so it was easy to not focus on their aunt. Luckily, she also had great neighbors who helped her out as she aged. She moved fairly willingly when she needed assisted living, but it was a huge job for my brother and I to clean out her house of 60 years and sort through her financials. She passed away in a nursing home the same month her savings ran out.
Fortunately, Aunt Ina Lou did not have a ton of possessions to go through. The worst issue was just finding all her financial info, as it was scattered around in various places, with statements going back year and not well organized. My brother took care of most of that, while I took care of setting up automatic bill payments and handling her taxes. Four truck loads of trash and one load to Good Will handled the majority of what needed to be removed. I’m thinking one more time up there to clean up, and then I and get the place painted and the shag carpets replaced.
First, how lucky she was to have you and neighbors who were all so honest. That doesn’t always happen. My father had everything well lined up before he passed. He’d even written his obituary and I was aware of it, but couldn’t find it, so I did that from scratch. Also, dad told me over and over he’d had a good life and if the time came when a decision had to be made, he was fine with going. That was a great comfort to me when I had to make the decision to withhold life support.
Yes, clear directions on the health care power of attorney are priceless.
My dad had a will, P.O.A., etc. but after he passed I found that he had made some verbal and written significant agreements that seemed valid to me but were poorly documented. We experienced a lot of heartache and wasted a lot of money on lawyers resolving these topics. It was apparent that multiple lawyers who had looked at his will well before he passed had not asked him about whether anything like these agreements existed.
He had told me about them and I greatly wish I had thoroughly looked into them well before he passed. I strongly agree with the author’s point that you need to talk to these older relatives and look at their paperwork while they are of sound mind, which means sooner rather than later.
These kind of problems are much more common I would think where elderly people never had children. There is generally a looser familial connection to nieces and nephews or even between siblings than between parents and adult children. In any case it’s wise to have the documents set up well, as my parents did, which made aiding them in their final years much easier. It’s a hard enough thing to manage when everything is set up perfectly, but if bills and files are jumbled, well, you deserve a medal for your diligence.
Thanks, Brian. What a familiar story that bears retelling! My parents were in your shoes many years ago, caring for my mom’s childless great-aunt as she declined. More recently, my own childless aunt was cared for by her much younger brother. My sister’s only niece and nephews are my three adult children, who will care for her when the day comes. Two are very close to her and will likely share the task. As I raise my teen grandson, I will prepare him for these eventual duties for my own daughter, who will also not have children. That’s what families do. It’s blessing that your aunt has you, your brother and your sister-in-law. When someone has been so competent and independent, their decline can come as a shock, as I remember it did to my parents. Glad your aunt had the legal framework set up.
This article has also made me think about my own siblings, who are both in their 50s. My sister is married, my brother is single, and they’re both childless. I have two adult daughters, and I may talk to them about their aunt and uncle needing help in the future. I’m the oldest at 62.
That’s an excellent idea. My wife and I and my brother have no kids, and my brother and I have no other siblings. Perhaps one of my wife’s niece and two nephews could help with things not provided by the CCRC where we plan to move.;
In my own family I have seen problems stemming from needless complexity including multiple accounts and overlapping investment holdings. I have been fortunate enough to be able to streamline holdings to reduce the complexity of the estate. It is ideal if you are invited to help while the older person is still able to collaborate and sign documents.
Such a strong and vivid case for preparation. I have always thought that it is up to each of us to prepare for what we want later in life, even if thinking about it is not a pleasant task.
She was so lucky to have good neighbors and fortunate to have your help.
Thanks for writing. These situations are not uncommon. My elderly great aunt , who never married but had money , was being victimized by some new neighbors until my aunt and uncle (3,000 miles away) came for a visit and realized what was happening . In my late parents’ neighborhood , an elderly retired lawyer, a bachelor, was scammed by young caretakers until alert neighbors stepped in.
You infer you’ve lived 6 hours away from your aunt most of your lives. Yet never thought to give your contact to her neighbors & church yourself when she was 85 or 90, or stay in regular contact & visits initiated by you, so you could’ve observed her aging process?
Instead you talk about the “tremendous amount of work” & “all it would’ve taken was a note” & “had she told me I would’ve kept in closer touch”
Callous victim blaming & self-aggrandizement.
Wow, one of the cruelest and most heartless comments I’ve ever read on Humble Dollar.
Thankfully the vast majority of the writers and commenters here are so wonderful that this type of comment stands out even more.
A bit harsh and over the top critical, but based on the explanation in the article hindsight seems to indicate a more proactive approach would have been desirable.
Yes, perhaps we could have been more proactive. It just did not occur to me. I always liked my aunt, but we did not interact much after my father (her brother) died suddenly in 1969 when I was 14.
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Brian, my wife and I are in the midst of a similar situation with her mother and brother and my mother. With her brother, it required countless hours of organizing finances and establishing relationships, as you describe with your aunt, and currently many hours with medical decisions and end of life issues. With our mothers, it has been a more gradual process of taking over responsibilities as they slowly decline. Even though I knew it before, it has become clear to me that most of us will need some trusted person to take over the most basic decisions near the end of our life.
It is unfortunate you have to be close to, or experience such a situation before you can really appreciate what is involved with trying to handle it competently.
Good lessons here. Thanks for writing this. I am glad your brother and you discovered your aunt’s condition before she got worse.