2nd October 2013
It doesn’t look like much, this little document with so much sway over my life. Twenty-five pages of A4, wonkily stapled and shaded dark from the photocopier, a mug stain on the front. But I look after it carefully because this copy of my father’s lasting power of attorney gives me the authority to manage his finances.
He is now in the locked ward of a dementia nursing home in Cornwall, with no hope of living independently again, so it’s crucial. Somebody needs to manage his bank account and his properties, and prepare his tax bill. That’s me – and these pieces of paper are the proof I’m legitimate, that I’m doing what Dad would have wanted.
But when, in the process of his divorce from my mother, the possibility was first mooted that my sister and I should be appointed as his attorneys, I didn’t understand what it meant. I wasn’t at a stage of life where I dwelt on illness, incapacity or death. I was too consumed with workplace gossip, with what was happening at the weekend and planning a wedding. It seemed impossible that my father, still a powerful, independent man, would ever be unable to make decisions.
He was getting older and seemed worryingly vague at times, but we hoped that was just a normal side-effect of being in his eighth decade. And his doctor said he was fine.
So my sister Ellie and I signed the paper without much thought, in a solicitor’s office in Penzance, in the presence of a lawyer Dad trusted. Our youngest sister, Ruth, was backpacking around Australia, so wasn’t included – which we thought didn’t matter as we wouldn’t have to use this thing anyway. I didn’t think much of it after that. I went back to my life in London, angsting over whether to wear a full-length veil, without a backward glance.
But if I had known how soon Dad’s diagnosis of probable vascular dementia would be made, I’d have taken it more seriously. It was little more than six months later that Dad was deemed incapable and the document was registered with the Office of the Public Guardian. As a family, it was decided that I should assume the main responsibility for managing his affairs. The baton had been passed.
Just over three years on, everything has changed. Now the idea of him ever being in charge of his finances – something he prided himself on – is the thing that seems incredible. His deterioration has been so swift, so absolute.
I’m just thankful he set it up when he did. I shudder to think what position we’d be in otherwise. Even as his attorney, it has been a laborious business to get his bank, his utility suppliers and his share companies to acknowledge that I can act on his behalf.
In wish I’d had more of a clue about what it meant at the time. I didn’t even realise that there are two kinds of power of attorney – one for property and business affairs, which is what I hold, and another for health and welfare, which gives the attorney the right to make medical decisions. No one holds this for Dad, though it hasn’t mattered because the family has agreed about his care.
I didn’t understand the implications of assuming full responsibility for another person’s finances; someone who had lived for so much longer and accrued so much more to look after than me. So the process since I took over has been a steep learning curve. Sometimes I feel as if I’m careering down a hill on a bike, shouting: “Look at me, Dad! No hands!”
The realisation that your parents aren’t in charge any more is disconcerting. But isn’t that what growing up is all about?