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How to Organize Important Documents

Creating a plan now can help caregivers make better decisions during a crisis

En español | Caregiving often starts with a crisis: A loved one suffers a fall or receives a serious diagnosis, and you are suddenly forced to respond and make decisions quickly — in some cases without even knowing his or her wishes. The good news is that much of this uncertainty can be avoided by simple planning.

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organization of documents is key to great family caregiving solutions

To avoid confusion or hasty decisions, caregivers should organize key documents before a crisis happens. — Photo by Tammy Hanratty/Corbis

One of the first and most important things to do when devising a caregiving plan is to identify and organize important documents. Here's a primer on how to get your loved one's papers in order and come up with a caregiving plan.

3 steps to assemble important documents:

1. Discovery: It sounds simple, but the first thing to do is ask your parents where they store important papers. It may be in a file cabinet at home, or in a safety deposit box or with an attorney. You can't get organized if you can't find anything, so come up with a checklist to write down where everything is. Documents that should be assembled and accounted for might include:

  • birth certificate
  • marriage certificate
  • death certificate (for deceased spouse)
  • divorce papers
  • military records
  • driver's license/organ donor card
  • passport/citizen papers
  • will
  • living will
  • durable power of attorney
  • health care power of attorney
  • trust
  • letter of instruction — with funeral arrangements, important contact information such as insurance agent or broker.
  • insurance policies (life, disability, long-term care)
  • information about safety deposit boxes (e.g., location, number, key)

2. Review: Once you've identified where those important papers are located, sit down as a family to review all the documents.

3. Storage: It's smart to keep the important documents in a safe, accessible place such as a secure file cabinet. Copies should be made for the person who is designated as a health care agent, and you should consider copying the files onto a thumb drive that can be stored at another location.

Making a caregiving plan:

Once the important papers are securely stored, you can confidently begin to plan for caregiving. Cast a wide net: Consult with all family members, friends and neighbors whom you think might be willing to help. Think about the present and the future, and draft a plan that will meet your loved one's immediate and long-term needs.

It's helpful to make a chart that displays: your loved one's goals and requirements; the steps required to provide them; the person responsible for each task; and a timeline for completion. For example, if your parents are considering a move, one person is designated to help research housing options. Another could be tasked to help sort through and prepare their belongings for an eventual move.

The plan should revolve around your loved ones' wishes. Keep them at the center. For instance, let them choose the person who they would like to handle their finances or accompany them to the doctor. Don't take decisions out of their hands. As long as they are able to do so, let them steer their caregiving ship.

Finally, after a caregiving plan has been finalized, share a written summary with everyone involved. Set up a communications system that keeps everyone in the loop. And remember that the plan is fluid — as your loved one's circumstances change, the caregiving plan will evolve.

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Long-term care expert Elinor Ginzler discusses important documents related to the care of a an older family member.