When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
But what about those things you really should do before you die? They may not be fun, but they will bring you peace of mind today, and provide guidance to the friends and family members you leave behind.
"I think there's an emotional obstacle to this kind of planning," says Charles Sabatino, director of the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging. "I think the unspoken belief is that death is optional."
Sabatino lists five things that everyone should do before they die:
No.1. Give someone durable power of attorney to manage your affairs if you become sick and unable to do so yourself.
"Who is going to pay your bills, deposit your checks, manage your financial affairs and your business if you have one," says Sabatino. "We're going to live a lot longer in general, and most of us will live under some chronic condition or disability that will impair us. The goal is to live with as much control and quality of life as possible."
No. 2. Write a will. That may be sufficient estate planning for most people now that estates worth up to $2 million are tax exempt (in 2009 that will go up to $3.9 million).
"People tend to create a trust to reduce estate taxes and avoid probate, but taxes are less of a concern these days," said Sabatino. "So is probate, because the procedures have been simplified in many states, so many people find they don't need a trust. A will and durable power of attorney usually will take care of things."
No. 3. Write an advanced-care directive or living will, and give someone medical power of attorney to carry out your wishes about medical treatment at the end of your life.
"Name someone you trust totally," says Sabatino.
Without this, you could end up like Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who triggered a battle between her husband and her parents after a heart attackheart attack left her with massive brain damage. Her husband claimed she would not want to be kept alive in such a condition, but her parents disagreed.