Preparing for Incapacity

by Haleigh Collins

Imagine driving home from a holiday party this season and the unexpected occurs – Santa’s sleigh crashes into your vehicle! Leftover pumpkin pie and dressing splatter all over the reindeer. Jingle bells, toys, and cookies are strewn across the street in a 30-yard radius. Santa and his crew speed away without a scratch to finish deliveries to all the good boys and girls across the world. You, however, are incapacitated and require an emergency trip to the hospital, where you experience loss of consciousness (with visions of sugar plums) until Valentine’s Day.

Even without reckless reindeer on the road, about 750 car wreck-related injuries occur over the holiday season in Oklahoma, according to the most recent Fact Sheet published by the Highway Safety Office of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety. Because car accidents occur so commonly, they provide a perfect illustration for imagining how easily any of us could become incapacitated. Any one of us could experience an accident or an illness and become unable to manage our day-to-day affairs, like paying our bills or driving to our doctor’s appointments.

What can we do to prepare for a season of life where we simply cannot take care of ourselves? Such a season could affect our physical abilities, mental abilities, or both. It could involve temporary impairment for only a season or permanent incapacity for the rest of life. Incapacity could occur slowly and over a long period of time, or it could occur suddenly and unexpectedly. The legal definition of “incapacity” incorporates a broad spectrum of circumstances, including the following:

  • impairment due to mental illness or disability;
  • impairment due to physical illness or disability;
  • impairment due to drug or alcohol dependency;
  • the inability to meet essential requirements for health and safety; and/or
  • the inability to manage financial resources

Preparing for a season of your own incapacity could provide a huge blessing to your family and others who depend on you. Here are some ways you can prepare for the possibility of incapacity:

  1. Appoint a person who can act for you in legal and financial matters.  This person, your “agent,” is appointed in your Durable Power of Attorney. In case you ever need a court-appointed guardian, you can utilize your Durable Power of Attorney to nominate the person you would want to serve as your guardian.
  2. Appoint a person who can act for you in making health care decisions. This person, your “Health Care Agent,” is appointed in your Health Care Power of Attorney. He or she can be authorized to communicate with your doctors and medical caregivers about your care and make decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so. In case you ever need a court-appointed guardian, you can utilize your Health Care Power of Attorney to nominate the person you would want to serve as your guardian.
  3. Appoint a person who can make decisions about end-of-life matters.  You should have an Advance Directive in place, to document your decisions about the type of care you would want to receive if you become incapacitated and experience an end-of-life condition, such as becoming persistently unconscious or terminally ill. An Advance Directive also allows you to appoint a person, your “Health Care Proxy” to make sure your wishes, as expressed in your Advance Directive, are carried out by your health care providers.
  4. If you already have these important documents in place, make sure your family members know where these documents are located and how to use them. Make sure these documents are accessible to those who might need them. Also, if you have appointed one of your children before another to serve an important role in your care, please consider explaining your decision to your children while you have the capacity to do so in order to avoid potential family strife after you are no longer able to communicate your wishes.
  5. Talk to your family members and/or close friends about what information they will need to know if you become unable to take care of yourself and/or unable to continue taking care of them. This information includes the name and contact information for advisors you trust to assist you and your family during a period of incapacity.