by Joy Ann von Wahlde, attorney
Q. My mother has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. I have heard it is important for people with dementia to have a power of attorney. What is a power of attorney, and why does she need one?
A. A power of attorney (POA) is a legal document that gives someone else the power to act on your mother's behalf. A POA allows a competent adult to give another person (or persons) certain powers that are defined within the document. The person giving the power of attorney, your mother in this case, is called the principal. The person given the power of attorney is called an "agent" or "attorney in fact."
A POA would take no legal rights away from your mother. It would give the agent the power to do the same things your mother could do. The powers given may include consenting to medical treatment, buying or selling things, and managing financial matters. The agent must act in accordance with the principal's wishes and in the principal's best interests. A POA may be necessary in events where the principal is temporarily unable to make his or her own decisions, such as in a medical emergency.
Unless the POA says otherwise, the agent's powers end when the principal becomes mentally incapacitated. In cases such as Alzheimer's disease, where the person is deemed mentally incapacitated, a durable power of attorney is needed. This means that the POA stays in effect and is not be limited by any future disability of the principal.
A POA must be executed while the principal is still able to understand what the document means. Whether a person with mild dementia, such as your mother, has the mental capacity to execute a power of attorney is a judgment call. It may be helpful to ask a geriatric specialist or the opinion of your mother's physician. For specific legal advice about your situation, you should speak directly with an attorney.
There are alternatives, including guardianship, if a POA is not an option. More information about powers of attorney, guardianship, and other alternatives may be found at the Northwest Justice Project, toll free at 1.888.201.1014 or on the web at www.nwjustice.org.