By Alexis Cheney – @akcheney

It was only when my dad called from a hospital bed after driving his mower off the ledge of his yard and onto a rocky ravine did I consider my parents — already 78 and 63 — will not live forever.

Although my 20s come with such blissful moments as college graduations, bachelorette parties and weddings, they also come with more somber ones, like the funerals of grandparents and even some friends’ parents.

Sorry y’all, this is going to be that kind of post – filled with important, must-do stuff that comes with being an adult. But at the end, I have a bunch of puppy pictures awaiting you. So don’t give up. Plus, taking note of these tips will save you from headaches down-the-line.

A little preview to bolster your morale.

When asked when to start end-of-life planning, Elder Law Attorney John Hope sent chills down my spine: “You never know when something is going to happen. Everyone should have these documents.”

Thinking about our parents’ oncoming mental and physical frailty is not exactly fun. Yet, according to Hope, helping our parents plan for older age enables them to “avoid crisis situations and ultimately enhances their quality of life.” It also gives peace of mind to those of us who’ve pursued careers and adventures far away from our parents.

So, if you want your parents to continue living life to the fullest, here are six ways to help them plan for the Golden Years:

  1. Prepare Essential Competence Planning Legal Documents.

This whole process can feel rather awkward. Just remember, proactively putting these documents together will help your parents save money and stay in charge of their future. Waiting until it’s too late means going to court to gain authority to manage their finances and health—which is expensive, time-consuming and can compromise their privacy.

According to Hope, preparing these forms ahead of time with the help of an attorney can cost around $1,000, but paying legal fees in probate court and failing to protect financial assets can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.

There are five crucial legal documents you can help them with (and yes, I’m about to use some legal words, but don’t worry – deep breaths. Remember, there are puppies at the end of this.)

  • Durable Power of Attorney: Appoints one or more individuals to help an elderly person with financial matters when the person is no longer in the mental or physical state to do so.
  • Health Care Proxy: Allows your parents to appoint one or two people to make medical decisions for them if they are unable to do so in the future.
  • Advanced Directive (aka Living Will): Enables an individual to express his or her wishes about end-of-life medical care in the case that s/he is unable to do so.
  • HIPAA Authorization and Release: Authorizes certain people to receive information from all medical providers, including a hospital, about the condition of a loved one. It also allows children listed on the document to make medical appointments for their parents.
  • M.O.L.S.T. (Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) Form:  Prevents Emergency Medical Technicians from attempting to resuscitate an individual when the person’s heart stops beating or s/he stops breathing. This form is totally optional based on circumstances. Most people wait until a serious illness or are near the end before signing this form.
  1. Estate Planning

Setting up financial planning documents ensures your parents’ money goes where they want it to when they pass, whether the beneficiaries be close family members, international organizations, etc.

Will: A set of instructions to the Probate Court specifying to whom your parents wish to leave their Probate Property  when they pass. Assets with beneficiary designations pass directly to the named beneficiaries without having to go through Probate. If your parent is strapped for cash, they can use online tools like Rocket Lawyer to create the will. If your parent is upper-middle class or above, they should hire an estate planning attorney.

Trust: A legal contract between the person creating the trust (the “Settlor” or “Grantor”) and those designated as “Trustee(s)” to manage any assets transferred into the Trust for the benefit of one or more persons known as the “Beneficiaries.” Items that go into a Trust include real estate, money or investments. Although there are various types of trusts, an important one to know is the Living Irrevocable Trust, which is used to protect real estate in case nursing home care is later needed. Transferring real estate into a trust must happen five years ahead of time before applying for Medicaid to pay for nursing home care.

  1. Plan for Parents’ Housing and Care Needs

There are a ton of options rather than nursing homes these days. Take stock of all the choices and discuss with your parents where they would be happiest. Here are some ideas:

  • Living at home and bringing in care services as needed.
  • Moving into an independent living facility, which may provide some support services.
  • Progressing  into an assisted living facility where meals, housekeeping and some personal care assistance are provided including specialized dementia/memory care.
  • If nursing home care is needed, they can choose to enter a Continuing Care Retirement Community, which allows them to progress through independent living to assisted living to nursing home care at the same location.
  • If you’re unsure about appropriate housing and the level of care your loved ones need,consult with a professional Geriatric Care Manager. You can find one through the Aging Life Care Association.
  1. Educate Yourself About Public Benefits to Help Fund Housing and Care Needs

Americans who are 62 or older may be eligible for Social Security Retirement benefits, including the option to enroll in the Medicare health insurance program at age 65, or younger if determined to be disabled. Attorney Hope noted it is often beneficial for elders to wait until age 66 or older to begin collecting.

Each state also has some elder care services available, subsidized with state funding for income eligible individuals who wish to remain living at home. These may amount to seven to 10 hours per week of assistance. Individuals with low income may be eligible for other state benefits, including food stamps, fuel assistance, etc. You can learn more about these at AARP’s website.

For people who need more care, Medicaid is a joint federal/state program that can help pay for an elder’s housing and care needs. For financially eligible individuals, Medicaid can pay for in-home care at an assisted living facility or care at a nursing home. Hope explained that gifts in amounts of $1,000 or more made within the 60-month period preceding a Medicaid an application for long term care will create a delay in eligibility so your parents should consult with elder law attorney before making gifts.

Meeting with an Elder Law attorney can be helpful to learn about advance planning or last minute options to make your parents eligible for Medicaid benefits through various strategies that leverage Medicaid regulations for a favorable outcome. In some cases, assets can be preserved while accessing Medicaid to pay for care needs. Click here to find an Elder Law attorney.

  1. Ask About Their Burial Wishes

Sky-burial? Mummification? Cremation? Your parents may have an attachment to a particular cemetery or to a special spot. It is worth knowing where they would like to rest in peace. Advance planning with a pre-paid funeral contract from a funeral home can make things easier when they pass.

  1. Organize Their Important Papers

Keeping track of your parents’ important documents will make managing their affairs and preparing benefit paperwork easier. There are a lot of them, so help your parents think about where to put and keep them so you can find them easily as needed.

Important documents include:

– identification

– contact info for family and friends

– contact info for service providers and professionals

– health and life insurance along with medical expenses

– marriage/divorce certificates

– real estate deeds and property tax bills from the past year or copy of lease if renting

– utility bills

– burial information (copy deed for cemetery plot, pre-paid funeral contract)

– paperwork from vehicles

– past three years of tax returns

– proof of income

– past year of financial asset statements

– list of gifts of $1,000 or more in past 12 months

– legal documents

Although end-of-life planning can be complex, these six tips will help simplify the process so your parents can age without stress.

Now, as promised, here are your puppies.