The odds are good that you may never have never held nor even seen a genuine ivory trinket in your lifetime, especially if you live outside of Africa. Ivory is seen by many as a relic of a bygone era of cruelty we like to think we’ve risen above.
It wasn’t so long ago, though, that the jetsetters felt otherwise. I see ivory trinkets at least annually, in my capacity as a Guardian and Conservator for elderly clientele with advanced dementia. Ornate hand-held Japanese-style carved fans; bracelets, rings, brooches, pendants; delicately-carved figurines. I have to admit, they are mesmerizingly beautiful, the polished sheen of the well-cared-for ones almost ethereal.
It is illegal to buy or sell ivory in the United States. You can only keep it in your family or donate it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service for their education programs. In a way, ivory is a true modern-day curse, because your heirs are likewise unable to sell it, and it seems horrible to simply destroy it, given the cruelty of its creation in the first place.
These items should not exist at all, yet they continue to do so, in a sort of limbo of shame. Debilitated aging is sometimes seen that way, too. "What happens if I start getting dementia?" you might wonder. Let's go for a walk down "memory lane:" together, we can make a better future for the aging process, even with its uncertainty.
One illustrative example of "What happens?" was not my own client: it was a lady I knew beforehand named Babs Fenway. She was one of the first US Postmasters in her small town at a time when most women didn’t work at all. She worked the factories during WW2, as well. Babs had seen a lot. She was a lifetime career gal, never really interested in a husband nor children; the fact that she made her way in the world makes her somewhat unique among peers of her age and socio-economic segment of the population. Babs made out alright, and had a modest Estate to show for it.
Unfortunately, like many these days, Babs had developed cognitive decline in her golden years. Before her formal diagnosis, she was found wandering down the street in her nightgown more than once, confused as to where she was and where she lived. Another hallmark of her decline was that she had alienated friends and neighbors due to her accusations that they were all stealing from her.
Combined with other factors – including a medical evaluation test which yields a figure called a SLUMS score – the indication was that Babs had dementia.
Because she had not previously assigned someone to make medical decisions for her, court-appointed Guardians found her a care home which would give her the stability and care she needed, but – as for most middle-class US citizens – that meant that her home had to be sold, both for practical reasons and also to help pay for her ongoing care. In her condition, Babs would not be able to maintain her residence nor live on her own ever again. A court-appointed Conservator was assigned to this task.
With no close family to consult, a downsizing crew was called in to determine what needed to be sold, donated, destroyed, or set aside to pass on to any remaining family (distant family, in Babs’ case: a professional genealogist was hired to track them down). It is a painstaking job to perform, and no stone is left unturned. Countless hours are spent to ensure that the possessions are appropriately earmarked, since once they are disposed of in one of the aforementioned categories, it is generally too late to undo that action.
All that is to say, as with our bodies, our homes and lives suffer the accumulation of years. So many forget that, some day, death will sneak up on you, and someone else is going to have to clean up your mess, so to speak. In a way, those who have the financial means and who go on to develop dementia can be in a fortunate place: a discreet professional team can be called in to help take the burden off of the family. In so many cases, particularly post-demise, the family tries to do it themselves, to much vitriol and lifelong family fracture in the end.
My job is like a treasure hunt and Antiques Road Show combined, most of the time. Though there is often a lot of accumulated clutter, it can be so interesting when you discover a familial jackpot: misplaced stock certificates (inside books or loose papers seems to be a popular storage spot), once-lost valuable jewelry (check your drain traps!), and secret keys to unknown safety deposit boxes (tag and mark, please...) are among just a few of the many forgotten treasures I’ve uncovered in my job, in addition to the exquisite ivory pieces I mentioned at the start of this.
Then there are the occasional secret Wills that turn up. Those aren’t just a movie plot device: the movies spring from real life.
Of course, there is almost always the issue of clutter, up to and including hoarding, in these situations. You can’t blame the elder, though: there is little you can do for yourself, when you begin to decline. If you aren’t regularly in touch with anyone outside of your own space, you have no insight into your own situation, and it can be hard for you (and your non-local loved ones) to realize just how bad the situation has become.
What is the point of all of this, you might ask? Several suggestions, actually, for those realizing it might be time to think about their own mortality. These will make it easier on your psyche, easier on your family, and could save your Estate an unbelievable amount of money. (You do have an Estate, if you have any accounts, property or possessions at all.) So, even if you don’t think you have a lot, someone someday will have to decide what to do with what you do have. It’s better if it’s you.
My completely non-legal, non-medical advice – a gift to point you towards a start:
Finance: (Babs' finances were handled by her Conservator (also called "Guardian of the Estate"), due to her dementia.)
- It is worth considering putting in place a Power of Attorney for your financial affairs. Ask an attorney for some advice on this: there is something called a Springing Power of Attorney that does not go into effect until and unless you need someone to serve due to your incapacity.
- Setting up a Trust is another option for financial peace of mind which an attorney can help navigate.
- The least expensive option, you could also directly set up any financial accounts as POD (Pay on Death; closes the account out and issues the balance to your designee) or TOD (Transfer on Death; the account generally stays open, such as in the case of investments, but changes ownership to your designee).
I leave it to the reader to explore whether and which of these vehicles might be the most situationally advantageous.
Health: (Babs' healthcare decisions were made by her Guardian (also called "Guardian of the Person"), due to her dementia.)
- Likewise, there is (by many names, which vary by state) a Medical/Healthcare Power of Attorney which can be implemented. These help give your designee some leverage in the event you might need medical decisions made for you.
- A document called a POLST and/or an Advance Directive can relieve so much burden on your loved ones when it comes to an unexpected medical emergency, as well. You never know at what age such an emergency could occur, so this is useful to have for everyone of any age.
Look into these; you and your loved ones will be glad that you did.
- Set up a funeral plan. You can prepay for whatever your time-of-death needs will be, whether cremation, fully-blown funeral, or what your preference dictates. Funeral plans are now sold as insurance policies, so don’t let the fact that you have an unknown future destination keep you from checking these out: they are portable and can often be transferred to a new location, should you move. Where I live, a simple cremation policy can be had for around $700.
- Either way, keep this information in a secure location with your other legal documents, as well as an up-to-date collection of information you’d like to see in an obituary and/or memorial service, if that is important to you. As someone who lost a loved one and was expected to give the eulogy, this is such a wonderful preventative solution to untold amounts of angst in the midst of grief.
- A Will can keep your family close to one another in the event of your death, because undirected assets are the most common cause of family in-fighting and fracture after a loved one dies: I see it time and time again. Perfectly loving siblings at one another’s throats, their good relationship forever ruined by fighting over Mom’s exquisite vintage attire or Dad’s valuable first-editions. This could easily have been prevented by simply setting out your wishes.
- If an accord over possessions cannot be reached, an Administrator for your Estate (as appointed by the court, in the absence of a Will) could be forced to sell it all in order to split the proceeds. That could result in decades of family heirlooms being dispersed to the winds forever.
We know so little about the where and when of cognitive decline, and nobody sees an accident nor their final day coming. It’s all about making your wishes clear, so that nobody has to guess: do your loved ones a favor and consider taking care of them before it’s too late.