What would you do if one of your aging parents suddenly ended up in the intensive care unit of a hospital, on a ventilator and unable to communicate, while a doctor gives you a grim prognosis and asks you to decide whether or not to continue life support?

How about if you’re faced with monthly bills of several thousand dollars – not covered by Medicare or insurance – for nursing home care?

It’s not pleasant to think about such situations, but they’re all too common among adult children caring for elderly parents. Preparing for legal and financial issues now will save you the strain of having to deal with them in a crisis, and ensure that you can understand and honor your parents’ wishes. Smart planning will also give you and your parents more time to pray about God’s will for what can become life-or-death decisions.

The longer a caregiving relationship takes place, the more health challenges the children and their aging parents will likely face, said Sharon Lynn, director of ElderLink, a nonprofit program that coordinates and manages various aspects of care for elderly people. But if caregivers plan for the future, she said, they can be well prepared.  “There’s no way to prevent crises; they’re going to happen. But you can prepare for them.”

Making arrangements to carry out decisions in case an aging parent becomes incapacitated is an excellent task to undertake while the parent is still fairly healthy, said Lynn. Preparing such documents as living wills and power of attorneys in advance can save a lot of heartache later on, she said. Also, added Lynn, purchasing long-term care insurance is another good idea, since the cost of care in a facility such as an assisted living home or a nursing home can be exorbitant and Medicare does not cover the costs for most people.

According to the 2005 National Alliance for Caregiving/AARP national caregiver survey “Caring in the U.S.,” most U.S. caregivers don’t adequately plan for the costs of caring for their loved ones.  “This high incidence of insufficient financial planning held true regardless of their age, income, or the level of caregiving burden,” the survey results stated.

Caregivers must pay significant amounts out of their own pockets if they haven’t made advance arrangements for other ways to fund their loved ones’ care.  The survey results revealed, “We do not know how much long-term care is paid for by caregivers versus coming from the older person’s income and assets, but we do know that caregivers on average report out-of-pocket expenditures of $171 per month for special food, home modifications, clothing, etc., for their care recipient. This amounts to $2,000/year or the equivalent of an IRA.”

Adequate planning means lots of freedom of choice later on, and that’s invaluable, said Francine Duncanson, who helps care for both her mom and aunt. Duncanson, whose mom and aunt saved money for their care that Duncanson – a single parent who doesn’t have as much herself – can use when deciding how to help them.

“A lot of people are a lot worse off than we are financially,” she said. “It’s such a blessing to be able to have the money you need to pay for whatever care you need. It makes the whole process so much easier.”

Jim and Denise Vickery, caregivers for her father, Leonard Dobner, experienced the stress of not having enough funds available to pay for Dobner’s care in a local nursing home. Since the fees at nursing homes near their home in Herndon, Virginia were beyond what they could afford, they had to place Dobner in a nursing home more than an hour away in Stephens City, Virginia. “We go out there every week on Sunday to take him to lunch,” Jim Vickery said. “But we’re the only people who ever visit him, and we often think, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we could visit more often?’”