When he got the bad news, I was camping. Not just camping, actually — I was sleeping in a tent in southern Ethiopia, days away from the nearest phone signal or Internet connection. I would have been more in touch if I had been on the moon. By the time I finally returned to Addis Ababa and checked my e-mail, the operation was already over. He’d gone through the ordeal alone.
Although he survived the surgery, the lingering cognitive side effects were severe. He couldn’t recognize me, let alone answer questions about things like his health insurance policy, and doctors didn’t know if the condition would ever improve. I’d never felt like a grown-up before, but suddenly I was dropped into adulthood. At 24, I didn’t yet have my own health insurance policy, retirement account or house. I could barely take care of myself, let alone take care of someone else.
To put it in millennial slang: I was a hot mess.
As anyone who has cared for a sick parent knows, there is a huge amount of medical, logistical and financial information to figure out. But it can be especially overwhelming for young adults, who have little (if any) experience managing complicated finances, dealing with insurance companies and making major logistical decisions.
My situation was a little unusual, perhaps, since my father is not married and I don’t have any siblings. But I certainly wasn’t the first young adult to care for an unexpectedly sick relative, and I won’t be the last. Many parents of young adults are still fairly young themselves, so they don’t expect to have a major medical crisis. If they do, their children are particularly ill equipped to care for them.
At least, I was. “I don’t know his Social Security number,” I sobbed during at least a dozen phone calls with health insurance companies, long-term care facilities, hospitals and banks. I didn’t know his computer passwords, his bank account numbers or even his mother’s maiden name. I didn’t know the name of his employer, or whether he had a safe deposit box at a bank. Frankly, there wasn’t a single thing that I did know — and worst of all, every minute I spent learning those basics was a minute I didn’t spend with my father.
None of this was his fault, of course. My father is a very responsible man who had a will and an advance health care directive established years before he got sick. But it wasn’t nearly enough. For weeks, I berated myself for not asking him certain critical questions that could have helped me navigate this maze on his behalf back when I had the chance.
Then, amazingly, we got lucky. A final medical procedure resolved the hydrocephalus that had been putting pressure on my father’s brain and causing the mental impairment, and his cognitive function returned with a vengeance. Suddenly, I could ask every question I’d never asked before.
I wrote them all in a list and sent it to my father. Within days, he responded with the answers. It’s a simple document that took us almost no time to make, but it feels like a life raft. I showed these questions to a few of my friends, and suddenly dozens of people were asking me for copies to forward to their own families. I think readers of this blog might find it useful, too.
Basic information and important documents
— What is your Social Security number?
— Where can I find your Social Security card?
— What is your date of birth?
— What is your e-mail password? Computer password? Voice mail password?
— What is your health insurance company and policy number?
— Where is your birth certificate?
— Do you have a safe deposit box somewhere? If so, where is it and how do I access it?
— Do you have a life insurance policy?
— Do you have a long-term care insurance policy?
— Are there any Social Security or retirement benefits that I should be aware of?
— Are there any security questions (such as your mother’s maiden name) that I should know the answers to?
— What bills do you pay? When and how do they need to be paid?
— What bank account should I access if I ever need to pay for some medical expenses out of pocket?
— What back account should I access if I ever need to pay for long-term medical care out of pocket?
— What are your bank account numbers, PINs and passwords?
— Where is your house deed?
— How do I sell your house?
— If you are mentally incapacitated and need to move to a long-term medical care facility, which facility would you like me to move you to?
— If you need to move into a long-term medical care facility, what should I do with the contents of your house?
— Where is your car title (and/or registration)?
—Does your car have insurance information I should be aware of?
— How do I sell your car? Is there any additional information I need?
My friends are still young, and most do not expect their parents to suffer from serious medical problems for decades yet. But my experience taught me prepare for the worst even as we continue to hope for the best. This list is a work in progress that continues to grow and change.
So tell me: What questions are we missing? What else can baby boomers do to equip their semi-grown-up children to care for them should the need unexpectedly arise? What else should millennials do to reassure our parents that we’ll be ready if we have to be?