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Becoming a Caregiver

Whether it happens over time or in an instant, this new role can be stressful.

You run to the grocery store for your aging parents. You make a phone call on their behalf because they’re having a hard time resolving an issue. You drive them to medical appointments. If there is an accident or illness, however, you may suddenly find yourself managing much more than errands. This can be a nightmare if you don’t know anything about their affairs. 

What are their monthly expenses? Do you have access to their bank account? Can their doctor legally speak with you? What kind of Medicare plan do they have? Do they have life insurance? What about a will?

In order to avoid these questions during an already stressful time, certified financial planner Mary Sterk of Sterk Financial Services in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, recommends planning ahead as much as possible. She offers eight tips.

1. Talk it out.

“While they still can and before there’s any level of dementia, talk to your loved ones about their wishes,” Sterk advises. What would your parents or spouse like to have happen in terms of medical care, finances, nursing home care, and end-of-life circumstances?

2. Set up a system.

“Bills that don’t get paid can wreak havoc in somebody’s life, so set up a system that helps you figure out what the bills are and when they’re due,” Sterk says. She recommends automating payments when possible. “If you don’t have to sit down and write 14 checks the first and 15th of the month, that’s going to make your life a whole lot easier,” she says.

3. Make copies.

Sterk recommends making copies of the person’s insurance cards, Medicare cards, Social Security cards, prescription drug lists, and passwords. “You’ll want to keep these items in a secure place. They are pieces of information you’re going to refer to again and again, so having them in an accessible place will make your life easier.” A secure online storage system like Dropbox will let you access them from your phone.

4. Review insurance policies.

Visit with the insurance agent, a financial planner, or the company to learn how life insurance policies work, when the premiums are due, and how long they last. If nursing home insurance is part of the portfolio, do some investigating. “Those policies are really confusing, and they all work a little bit differently, so investigating how they work is part of your job as the financial caregiver,” Sterk says. She also recommends finding out if the policy covers home health care or assisted living.

5. Visit with an attorney.

“You can only help so much until you have the legal authority to do so,” Sterk says. Setting up financial and health care power of attorney is much easier to do when everyone is still mentally fit. “Parents, if you think at some point you may need your adult children to help take care of you, you should go get these power of attorney documents set up.” These responsibilities can be split, with different people designated for each, but setting them up ahead of time can help reduce conflicts later on. Make sure parents understand this isn’t taking away their right to make decisions; it’s just making it easier for the person they designate to step in when needed.

6. Review investments.

There are many different kinds of investments, and they all work a little differently, which can be confusing. “This money is going to need to take care of the people you’re now providing care for – for the rest of their lives,” Sterk says. “If you’re not a financial guru yourself, the best thing to do is gather up all the information and take it to a financial planner.”

7. Keep a medical log.

Even when your loved ones are on top of their game, it can be tough to keep track of medical appointments, procedures, and doctor’s orders. Keeping a log of medical notes and insurance issues will make it easier to ensure that Medicare, supplement, and prescription claims are being billed correctly.

8. Designate beneficiaries.

When there is a death, the beneficiary listing trumps everything, Sterk says. “Even if the will says one thing, if the beneficiary designation says another thing, the beneficiary designation rules the day.” Since the caregiver may be a beneficiary, it’s a good idea to make needed changes early on. “Then there’s no hint of impropriety if you change the beneficiary to yourself,” she says.

“Trying to navigate this alone is like trying to navigate a boat on rough waters without a captain,” Sterk says. “If you’ve never done it before, it’s hard to know where to start, and it can be overwhelming.”

Learn more at Sterk’s website,, or by calling 866/800-2186. She also has a weekly podcast, Money Guide with Mary Sterk, which offers tips on a wide range of financial topics.

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