Western Mail, 8th July 2010
Early legal planning can help ease some of the future financial and practical challenges of dementia, writes Jane Chesterman from Cardiff-based Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice
Dementia affects thousands of people in Wales every year, with symptoms ranging from loss of memory and mood changes to difficulty reading or speaking. It can be caused by a number of conditions including Alzheimer’s disease and suffering a stroke, and the symptoms of dementia worsen over time.
People suffering from dementia can often need help making life manageable and enjoyable; this can be something as small as lending a sympathetic ear, all the way through to someone needing help with washing and eating, or dealing with their financial affairs.
All too often, sadly, dementia can affect someone so badly that they are no longer capable of making their own decisions about the most important things in life, to the point that when someone needs help, they are unable to request it, or to specify who they want to help them.
The statistics show that more and more people in Wales are suffering from dementia every year. Yet from my own experience, we have been finding that few people are prepared for such a turn of events should it suddenly befall them.
Perhaps understandably, few people want to think about the prospect of living with dementia in the future, but by acting now, while they are fit and well, they will save themselves and their loved ones a potentially huge amount of stress and expense in the future if something like this should befall them.
There are some simple legal steps that people can take, right now, to put their affairs in order so that they are fully prepared if they should become incapable in the future.
The best piece of advice I could ever give someone who is worried about suffering from dementia in the future is to prepare a Lasting Power of Attorney. This is a legal document which sets out your exact wishes in the event of you becoming incapable to express them.
It can give you control over your future. Most people in Wales know they should make a Will in order to protect their property and provide for their loved ones; an LPA should ideally be prepared at the same time as a Will, and for the same good reasons.
Any of us could be involved in an accident, have a stroke or suffer from dementia in years to come; an LPA allows you to choose who will make decisions on your behalf, and what your wishes are.
Under an LPA, you appoint someone to make decisions for you, and these people – your attorneys – are under a duty to act in your best interests, considering your age, your past wishes, your beliefs and values.
The powers you can allow your attorneys range from financial decisions – operating bank accounts, writing cheques and so on – to matters affecting your personal welfare, such as dental and medical care, housing, or even refusing life-sustaining treatment.
By preparing the document, you gain some control over what happens to you, and it gives those close to you – whom you chose to appoint – the authority and power to ensure that your wishes and beliefs are observed.
Without an LPA in place, the only option for relatives of those affected is to apply to the Court of Protection for them to appoint a Court Deputy. This process can be complicated, expensive, and lengthy – it takes at least three months, and your finances will be frozen until the court makes the order. The stress and expense of going through this process is often the last thing people need to deal with, on top of coping with a relative or loved one suffering from dementia.
Even at the end of the application procedure, there is no way of guaranteeing who the court will decide to appoint to look after your affairs; their choice may not necessarily be the person you yourself would have chosen to have this kind of control over your life.
The only way you can choose who will make decisions for you in the future, should you be affected, is to prepare an LPA.
By planning ahead in this way, and setting out your wishes like this, the loss of mental capacity does not have to mean the loss of control.
Once the legal issues have been taken care of, people facing the prospect of living with dementia can at least be sure that their wishes will be considered, and that their voice will be heard.
Jane Chesterman is a legal expert at Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice of Cardiff. For more information about living with dementia and Dementia Awareness Week, contact the Alzheimer’s Society or visit www.alzheimers.co.uk.