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What to Do When Your Elderly Parent is Mentally Incompetent

Worried about a parent making bad decisions? Incompetence comes in many forms, which can make determining what to do when an elderly parent is mentally incompetent a complex topic. But understanding more about your options is a good first step towards making the right decisions for all involved.

Age & Incompetence

Incompetence is a very common issue. In fact, about one-third of those over the age of 85 live with dementia. Even those who are healthy for their age experience age-related cognitive decline. But how much decline is too much, and what can you do about it?

To begin, it’s worth understanding that incompetence is a legal term rather than a medical term. However, some physicians are capable of judging a person’s capabilities, including medical problems that might interfere with their decision-making. And those judgments can be used as expert testimony in legal proceedings.

How to Prove an Elderly Parent Incompetent

You may want to start by determining if your parent is truly cognitively impaired, and that’s often done best with the help of their doctor. It’s not against the law to reach out with concerns to a loved one’s doctor, but it is possible your concerns will go unheard.

Another option is contacting your local adult protective services office. With little more than a tipoff, caseworkers are able to investigate a variety of concerns, including suspected neglect, abuse, and incompetence. In practice, that might mean visiting a parent, reviewing available medical information, and helping to assess a person’s ability to give consent and understand risks.

You can locate your local APS office here. Depending on what they find, caseworkers might also petition courts for guardianship, entrusting someone to act on the behalf of the person they believe has become a danger to themselves.

You don’t need a caseworker to petition the Superior Court clerk for your county, but you will need to prove a court with evidence from experts. And the court will need to learn more about your parent’s capacity in several areas: including areas like financial capacity, capacity to drive, medical consent capacity, and their capacity to live independently.

Resolving the Case

If the petitioner is an appropriate guardian, the court will transfer responsibility for living arrangements, medical decisions, finances, or other relevant areas. But whether or not a guardian is deemed appropriate can depend on a variety of factors, including things like a potential conflict of interests, credit history, criminal background, and so on. Those issues withstanding, many states prefer adult family members or spouses in guardianship positions.

Unfortunately, if family members disagree over the necessity of this process, or who should become the guardian, these types of proceedings can become lengthy and expensive. It can also be challenging to collect evidence of cognitive impairment that comes and goes, as with depression, delirium, and dementia. It’s often better to have these kinds of end-of-life decisions worked out ahead of time by learning how to get a power of attorney.

Download Our Early Signs of Dementia Guide

Having an Elderly Parent Declared Incompetent

As long as they’re sound of mind, people are allowed to make bad decisions. Even decisions that endanger themselves. But when loved ones are no longer mentally competent, it can also be a form of negligence to not address the problem head-on. These kinds of problems are an intimidating challenge, but like so many of life’s challenges, they’re nothing that can’t be overcome with the right support.

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