elder care

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Your Starter Kit
Three questions to ask your parents right now.

1. Do you have a living will? Roughly 72 percent of seniors have advance directives specifying end-of-life medical wishes, according to a recent study funded by the National Institute on Aging. Make sure your parents are among them. While you're at it, confirm that the document has been revised in the last five years and that you know where to find it.

2. Where's the money? Start with your parents' latest tax return to get an overview of their assets, says John Schall, CEO of the Caregiver Action Network. Then compile account numbers (savings, checking, credit card, 401(k), etc.) and phone numbers for the customer service line at each banking institution. If they bank online, find out their passwords (or, at the very least, make sure they add this info to a secure document you can access when necessary).

3. Who are your advisers? Get names and numbers for the professionals your parents rely on—do they have an accountant? spiritual adviser? primary care physician? You'll want to reach out to them when you need input and support. And don't forget other medical specialists. "Most elderly people see multiple doctors, especially if they're managing several chronic conditions," Schall says. "You'd be surprised how fragmented the system is, so it's up to you to know all the players on their healthcare team."

— Jihan Thompson

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Tech Support
These cutting-edge apps, websites and services—not to mention one foolproof computer—can help lighten your load and keep Mom and Dad independent a little longer.

StandWith, a free iPhone app, coordinates help from friends and family, ensuring that you won't get yet another casserole when what you really need is a ride for your mom to physical therapy. Think of it as a registry for helping hands: Just list the tasks you'd love to outsource, and anyone who is available can sign up for them.

Doctor On Demand offers 15-minute video appointments with licensed physicians using your smartphone, tablet or desktop. For $40 (the service is not yet covered by insurance), patients can get prescriptions or referrals for common ailments like colds and back pain, and you can avoid unnecessary hours spent in the waiting room.

Lively's tiny sensors can be attached to key chains, cabinets or even a refrigerator door, where they provide updates (via a website, email or text messages) on whether your mom took her medicine or your dad has eaten today. A safety watch with changeable bands offers a one-touch button for emergencies. (Starts at $40, then $25 monthly)

CareLinx, the Match.com of caregiving, helps you find home health aides without using an expensive agency. After undergoing a background check, aides post bios that include photos, qualifications and the kinds of tasks they are willing to perform. You can then hire them for a one-time emergency or ongoing visits.

Telikin makes ready-to-go computers that require zero tech know-how. Your parents will appreciate the large display and touch-screen buttons (labeled with words like VIDEO CHAT and EMAIL), which will help them stay connected without making you their one-woman IT department. (Starts at $699)

— Courtney Rubin
elder care

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Don't Go Broke
Yes, your parents' finances are an issue. But Suze Orman wants to be sure you safeguard yours.

Adult children who become caregivers often pay a steep price. According to a 2011 MetLife study, women older than 50 who leave the workforce early to fulfill this role forfeit about $324,000 in wages, Social Security payments and retirement benefits. However, with some smart strategies, you can avoid sabotaging your financial future.

Ask an accountant about potential tax breaks. You may be able to claim an elderly parent as a dependent if they have an annual income of less than $3,900 and you provide more than half their financial support. If you cover medical expenses, those costs may also be deductible.

If you become a full-time caregiver, don't support yourself by dipping into your 401(k) or IRA. Generally, you'll face a 10 percent penalty if you make an early withdrawal (before age 55 for a 401(k) and age 59½ for an IRA). And don't take out a second mortgage, which can send you down a slippery slope of debt. I'd advise doing whatever you can to keep your day job, even on a modified schedule. If your employer isn't flexible, you may be eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off through the Family and Medical Leave Act. With any luck, that grace period will buy you enough time to make other arrangements.

If you do quit work or go part time, talk to family members about being reimbursed for your services. Considering how much you stand to give up in lost wages, negotiating a salary needs to be your first priority. You should have at least enough to cover basic expenses, including housing, food, insurance and IRA contributions. (Go to IRS.gov to learn about self-employment taxes for family caregivers.) If your parents are paying, consult an eldercare attorney to make sure you're not jeopardizing Mom and Dad's ability to collect Medicaid. Ask for a salary that offers you financial stability and peace of mind—two must-haves for every caregiver.

— Suze Orman
elder care

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Don't Let Medicaid Break You
It took Jennifer Kaylin 13 months, reams of paperwork and untold hours on hold to get the Title 19 benefits—Medicaid funds for people with limited resources—her father needed to receive nursing home care. She shares her sanity-saving secrets.

Step 1: Get started five years before you think you need to.

Remember that paperwork we told you to have handy? Go grab it. Since Medicaid requires a five-year look back at all your parents' financial dealings, you'll be glad to have their banks' names and numbers right at your fingertips. "Regulators are looking for two things: if you're hiding any money and if you've given any away," says Donna Levine, an elder law attorney in Connecticut. And if one or both of your parents still live in the family homestead and you want to hang onto it, you'll need to transfer ownership (or establish a trust) at least five years before you even apply. There are a few exceptions, but generally, if you wait, you'll be forced to sell.

Step 2: Make sure you get power of attorney.

While you may not need power of attorney (POA) to obtain Medicaid approval for your parents, get it anyway. At every turn, people will simply say, "I'll need your POA to get that information for you." Even your parents' cable provider won't talk to you unless you have it, says Levine.

Step 3: Prepare for the paperwork.

Develop a filing system early. After you submit your initial application, you're going to need to answer a ton of questions, and each time you'll be asked for your case number. Write this number down, preferably on the cover of your Medicaid folder. Include dates of birth and Social Security numbers—you'll be asked for those often.

Step 4: Make friends.

You'll need allies—caseworkers, bank employees, eldercare counselors—to help you along the way. The tellers at your parents' bank can be lifesavers when your caseworker wants to know about a specific transaction, like that $1,200 check your dad wrote two years ago. Depending on a parent's mental state, that request could be manageable or maddening to figure out on your own.

Step 5: Resume your life.

When you get the letter saying your application has been approved, it's like a boulder has been lifted from your shoulders. There is a yearly "redetermination" process to prove your parents haven't won the lottery or otherwise seen an uptick in cash flow, but the pages and pages of paperwork are pretty much over. Hallelujah.

— Jennifer Kaylin
elder care

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Bank On This
Mom and Dad may be entitled to more money or discounts than you think. We asked experts to let us in on a few resources most people overlook.

Survivor Benefits

If your mother or father has passed away, your surviving parent may be entitled to survivor benefits through Social Security, explains Grace Whiting of Caregiving.org. A widow 65 or older could be missing out on nearly $15,000 a year if she doesn't take advantage. Learn more at social SSA.gov/SurvivorPlan.

Life Insurance Settlement

Though liquidating a life insurance policy often yields less than the death benefit, it can still add up to a serious chunk of change, says Andy Cohen, CEO of Caring.com.

Prescription Discounts, Federal Food Programs, Tax Breaks

BenefitsCheckup.org, created by the National Council on Aging, walks you through a series of questions, then identifies what sources of assistance your parent may qualify for.

The Family House

Reverse mortgages allow those 62 and older to convert a portion of the equity in their home into cash without having to put the home up for sale. But make sure it's worth it; fees for an appraisal, a credit report, title insurance and more could cost you thousands of dollars.

Veterans' Benefits

Most honorably discharged veterans are eligible for VA medical benefits, says Whiting. Register online at VA.gov/HealthBenefits/Apply. One caveat: There's a financial cap; some veterans with a high income or net worth aren't eligible.

— Blake Miller
elder care

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Your Survival Kit
O's list of essential sanity preservers.

Wine. Red, white, good, cheap. Sometimes self-medication is just what the doctor ordered.

A friend on speed dial. Somebody who can listen to you during dark nights of the soul and laugh with you at moments of total absurdity.

Distracting movies. Science has proved that it's impossible to feel worried or sad while watching My Cousin Vinny, Singin' in the Rain, or The Princess Bride. Okay, maybe not, but it can't hurt. Also, avoid all films with tragic parents (Bambi, Amour...).

Mementos of better times. If carrying around a seashell, a half-spent matchbook or a tiny porcelain goat makes you smile, by all means do that.

A pillow. Once in a while, you'll want to punch something.

Something that's pleasurable, mindless and yours. Tell everyone to leave you alone for an hour, then go weed your garden. Or dance the hully gully, or do something else that makes you happy. You need to carve out time for joy, and you need time to yourself.

Old photos of your parents. These folks in your care whose prescriptions need filling again, whose anecdotes take eons to relate? Here they are wearing bobby socks to a school dance, looking scrubbed and buoyant at their wedding, gripping your hand at Yellowstone. Look at these pictures and remember how singular their lives were, and are. Enjoy, even in this small way, the people who were there for you, and see if that doesn't make things just a tiny bit easier.

— Katie Arnold-Ratliff