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Caregiving in the Community

Help your older friends and neighbors &#8212 but protect yourself, too

Do you help an older neighbor shovel a walk or fix a leaky faucet? Do you bring an old family friend a hot meal or offer to pick up groceries? If you're not already caring for friends and neighbors, you probably know someone who does. And this situation will likely become even more common as the population ages. Americans are living longer than ever and staying in their own homes longer. Today, families are smaller, putting a bigger burden on fewer caregivers.

See also: Everything you need to know about caregiving.

Man on roof with antenna - There are legal aspects of helping a non-related friend or neighbor.

Helping your neighbor is a good idea, so is legal protection for the both of you. — Photo by Mika Manninen/Getty Images

If you, or someone you know, is caring for a nonfamily member, consider:

The power of 'hello'

Raking up leaves for an aging neighbor is very thoughtful, but caring is more than just doing a chore. It's also as simple as saying hi, checking in and spending time with an older person.

"Being social keeps people happier and probably helps them live longer," says Elizabeth Keech, a gerontology and caregiving expert at the Villanova University School of Nursing. It's also a good way to assess whether an older person is doing just fine or could use more assistance.

"First be a friend," Keech says. "Ask, 'Would you like to come over for a cup of tea?' Then determine if your friend has additional needs. 'I'm running to the store, can I get you something?' You can get a lot of information from casual discussion. But don't grill them." If these conversations lead you to believe the person needs more help than you can provide, contact your local Area Agency on Aging or visit for a referral to local resources.

Know when to say no

If your neighbor asks you for help with errands, a drive to the doctor's office or a hot meal on a cold day, feel free to comply. But if he asks you to help him sign his checks or other legal documents, don't do it, says Michael Amoruso, elder law attorney in Rye Brook, N.Y., and member of the board of directors of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

"Unless the individual has been appointed as the power of attorney for that senior, they should not be signing any checks," says Amoruso. "That could borderline on fraud."

The same goes for making medical decisions, unless you have been named the health care proxy.

Understand the implications of saying yes

If the older adult asks you to make those legal commitments and become his health care proxy or power of attorney, this is more than just a nod to your trustworthiness. It's a huge responsibility and should not be entered into lightly.

If you agree to be a health care agent, realize that you could be called upon at any time, day or night, to make some very serious decisions. "It could be as simple as a medical procedure or as serious as end of life," says Amoruso.

If you're asked to be power of attorney in charge of financial affairs, you are expected to make money-related decisions that unquestionably have to be in the person's best interest. If you're not comfortable with the scrutiny that could come with this (especially if your older friend has other family members), Amoruso recommends referring the person to an accountant who can be responsible for managing cash flow, investments and bill paying.

Next: Contract ensures Medicare benefits cover long-term care. >>

If you're being paid, new rules apply

Does your older friend pay you for cleaning his gutters, driving him to doctor's appointments or doing his laundry? If so, consult a lawyer to draft a simple contract that outlines the duties and how much you're paid. This might sound unnecessary to you, but it's vital for protecting the person in the event he ever needed Medicaid benefits to cover long-term care.

"If Medicaid were to see transferred assets, it's going to take the position that all the elder did was make gifts to this individual," says Amoruso. And gift-giving could void Medicaid eligibility. "But that presumption can be defeated with a proper contract."

Is your neighbor insured?

Before you patch a leaky roof or agree to run the lawn mower, ask your friend if his homeowner's policy is up to date. "What if you got hurt?" says Amoruso. "The caregiver's doing something out of his own heart here, but it would be terrible if that affected his means of earning a living due to an accident."

Also make sure your own insurance policy is in effect. "If you shovel the walk and miss a patch, there's nothing that would prevent the homeowner from suing you for not doing it properly. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished."

Also of interest: How to manage someone else's money. >>

Cynthia Ramnarace writes about health and families. She is based in Rockaway Beach, New York.

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