By Scott M. Solkoff, Esq.
People with dementia thrive on routine. When the normal calendar of life is disrupted by crisis or disaster, it can be upsetting to any person – but for a person with dementia, it can be a very real threat. From my view as an Elder Law Attorney, having worked with thousands of families to plan for their future, I have learned some simple steps that can be taken now to prevent big problems later.
Crisis and disaster can strike in many ways. In Florida, it can come ashore as a hurricane but can also be caused by a health event, the sudden loss of a caregiver, fire and other causes that could befall any of us. What all of these events have in common is a major disruption in routine and an increased need for safety and communication. Most people know to keep flashlights, batteries, a water reserve, canned food, a manual can opener and other such supplies on hand. This should be done and a caregiver should make a list and check the home regularly. If the subject of our concerns is in a facility, the caregiver should speak with facility personnel about provisions. Each facility is mandated by law to have a disaster plan and the caregiver should be aware of that plan. For example, if a facility has no power, is there a generator large enough to meet basic needs? Where would your loved one be taken if the facility itself becomes unsafe? Get the answers.
Access and communication is critical. You must be able to establish your authority to act for your loved one. As a caregiver, you should have copies, if not originals, of all important legal documents, most important among them being the durable power of attorney, any trust agreements and the health care surrogate designation. If at all feasible, the elder should also have copies, even if suffering from significant dementia, of the health care documents. My clients are supplied with “digital pocket vaults,” flash drives that we have fabricated to be about the size of a credit card and which are kept right behind the person’s drivers’ license. If I have an incident and paramedics come, they must look in my wallet for my I.D. Right behind my I.D., is this special “vault.” As soon as it is plugged into any computer (e.g., in the ambulance or the hospital), my caregiver’s name and phone number pop up so that they can be quickly identified and contacted. My health care surrogate designation and living will are also on the card. Create some way to make these critical documents portable. Put a noticeable sticker on the refrigerator (another place paramedics often look) with caregiver contact information. You can even put a sticker on the outside of the fridge telling the paramedics to look in the refrigerator door for a copy of the health care documents, a common practice. Some organizations provide “safe return” bracelets, a wonderful tool that allows anyone who finds your loved one to get him or her back to safety.
One of the most important safety devices is people. Make sure you, as a caregiver, have people you can count on to do the simple task of knocking on your loved one’s door if you cannot reach them yourself. Get to know at least one neighbor. Call your loved one regularly to “check in.” If there is no answer, do not panic. There is more often than not a good reason. If there is still no answer and too much time has passed, call that neighbor to go knock on the door.
To read more about elder law and estate planning, please visit www.elderlawnewyork.com. Two of the nation’s leading elder law and special needs planning firms, one in Florida and one in New York, have developed a relationship to coordinate services and knowledge for people who have connections to both states. Solkoff Legal, P.A., of Delray Beach, Florida and Littman Krooks, LLP of Manhattan, White Plains, and Fishkill, New York are dedicated to helping seniors and individuals with special needs, along with their caregivers and their families, to read more, click here.
 Scott Solkoff is a Florida Bar board certified Elder Law attorney, co-author (with his father) of West Publisher’s national and state books on Elder Law, Past-Chair of the Elder Law Section of The Florida Bar and a Fellow of the American College of Trusts and Estate Counsel (ACTEC). Scott practices Elder and Disability Law in Delray Beach, Florida.