What happens if I lose capacity due to dementia?

Sep 22, 2021
Many Australians are unsure of what to do, in the case of a dementia diagnosis. Source: Getty

Nearly every Australian family has experienced a relative or friend lose capacity due to dementia. And without a doubt it is among life’s most heartbreaking realities to witness.

The prevalence of dementia in Australia is rapidly rising, in part because we are all living longer. The average Australian lifespan in 2021 is 84 years, whereas half a century ago we were living until 71. While an incredible achievement, our older years herald new challenges. 

Today there are nearly half a million Australians living with dementia. Looking at the next 25 years, this number is expected to double as our population continues to age. The reality is that without a medical breakthrough, more Aussies will lose capacity to make financial and legal decisions before our lives end. And I believe it’s time we started planning for it early.

In my 15-year career as an estate planning lawyer, I have seen first-hand that it truly pays for a client to have robust arrangements in place in the event that they lose capacity. I have also seen the catastrophic consequences that can occur when the individual’s affairs fall into the wrong hands.

This week is Dementia Action Week, and in 2021 the focus extends to supporting the 1.6 million Australians involved in the care of people living with dementia. I want to take this opportunity to share early steps individuals and their families can take to protect and support themselves in advance, should a dementia diagnosis be a possibility in their future.

Communicate your wishes to loved ones

An early step you can take in planning for the onset of dementia is to openly communicate your wishes and end of life preferences with those closest to you.

This will not only ensure people around you have a uniform understanding of your interests if you were to lose capacity; it will also prepare relatives mentally and emotionally for the possibility.

It goes without saying that too many Australians are under-prepared for a dementia diagnosis. Too many family members, already hit hard by sudden grief, find themselves having to make decisions for the relative that they never discussed. By speaking to loved ones early, you will be gifting them with the tools they need to make a difficult journey a little smoother.

Appointing an attorney

A major step in the planning process is appointing an attorney via an Enduring Power of Attorney (EPOA) document. A financial attorney is a trusted person, persons or trustee company, who are authorised to make financial and legal decisions for you if you ever lose capacity.

It’s easy for people to assume immediate family members make the best financial attorneys, but there are times where this is not the case. Appointing a family member can add undue stress on a carer, and at times may result in decisions being made not in the best interest of the person – be that on purpose or without harm intended.

It’s also an unfortunate truth that elder abuse is an increasingly concerning issue in Australia, despite remaining somewhat in the shadows. Close relatives are the most common elder abuse perpetrators in Australia, and there are countless stories of family members misusing their authority to psychologically abuse victims or steal funds for their own benefit. 

Professional advice and services are available 

My final advice for the planning process is to recognise that each persons’ social and family circumstances are different. It is not uncommon for people to decide that no close relatives are suitable as an attorney. Alternatively, an individual may trust relatives as attorneys but not wish to burden them with administering their affairs. There is always a solution, and professional services are here to help.

No matter your situation, it pays to seek professional help from a trustee services provider. Trustee services can help with every step of the planning journey and they will always have your wellbeing at heart. Trustee services do much more than just provide support; they can be appointed as a financial attorney or administrator by a guardianship tribunal and directly administer your financial and legal affairs if the need arises. They can also support your future planning by writing your Will and assisting with your estate planning needs. 

The prevalence of dementia continues to rise as Australians get older. Just as with end of life planning, the early steps we take today can save enormous burden on your loved ones as well as ensure your wellbeing and best interests are upheld.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your financial or legal situation, objectives or needs. That means it’s not financial product or legal advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a financial or legal decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get independent, licensed financial services or legal advice.