By Susanna P. Barton
Quietly sobbing and crumpled under my work desk, and spinning out over another caregiving crisis for which I had no bandwidth, I called my sweet father for advice. He was sympathetic to the challenges I faced as “the person” for an elderly couple in South Florida, the parents of a deceased childhood friend – their only family. He listened as I described wild financial, medical, legal, and senior care emergencies that revealed themselves, often hour by hour and always day after day. I was not equipped for this, I told him. “But,” he responded, “what have you learned from this?”
What I learned can be found in my recently published book, Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps. Through this elder care challenge and conversations with others, I outlined 20 steps we can all take now to be better prepared for our senior experience. I look forward to sharing them here each month on agebuzz, one step at a time!
The first step we’ll take together is to Make lists of everything important and create a ‘death binder.’ Here’s the problem: When you are gone or unable to manage your life anymore, your loved ones will have a tough time getting a handle on your affairs if you don’t have it written down somewhere easy to access – such as in a death binder or some similarly organized file or document.
I haven’t found a study to prove it, but I’d bet the farm most adults have not taken the time to assemble their critical life data into a usable folder. If, according to a 2019 study by Merrill Lynch, more than half of Americans over the age of 55 haven’t prepared a last will and testament, chances are pretty good they don’t have a death binder either. I have a friend who felt very confident about her father’s death binder prep work – until he passed away and she discovered the binder she’d seen on his shelf was actually quite empty. Collecting important files is not a quick or easy task for most of us.
This was the case when I activated my Power of Attorney role for the couple I mentioned above. With no binder in sight, my first step was to hire a daily money manager recommended by their attorney. We spent months revealing and untangling the details of their financial, medical, and legal organization before we could line up the most appropriate support. This involved many faxes, snail mail, excessive notary paperwork, and lots of tears under my desk at work. I would not wish it on my worst enemy.
Simultaneously, I worked with the couple’s housekeeper to understand who they used for house and personal maintenance providers so there wouldn’t be any disruption to or non-payment for their services. Add electrical, internet, security, veterinary, homeowner association, water, and utility companies – for one primary residence and two secondary homes (!!!) – to the mix, and that made for a lot of frenzied sleuthing to keep their train on the tracks!
All the more reason to create a death binder – also known as a life file or In-Case-of-Death, If-I-Die, or legacy binder. Whether it’s a manilla folder full of papers, an organized binder of cataloged information, or a digital file or email, a “death binder” or collection of pertinent information is something you need to start assembling now – before there’s a crisis and before you forget it’s an essential task.
The good news is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or worry you’ll forget some necessary tab or document as you assemble everything yourself. There are many death binders, or “In Case of Death” document templates out there. This one from AARP is pretty good and allows you to fill it out online, which is helpful.
The Grand Planner, a workbook accompaniment to my book, Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps, includes a chapter on this topic that features a fillable space for the location of important documents, passwords, and policies.
The National Institute of Health’s web page, “Getting Your Affairs in Order Checklist: Documents to Prepare for the Future” also is a very useful source. It lists some of the legal, financial, and health planning documents you’ll need, as well as directions on assembling other essential documents and why it’s important to communicate their location to those you trust.
“When you’re getting your affairs in order, it’s important to prepare and organize important records and files all in one place,” the NIH page stipulates. “Typically, you will want to include personal, financial, and health information. Remember, this is a starting place. You may have other information to add. For example, if you have a pet, you will want to include the name and address of your veterinarian.”
The NIH important document checklist suggests gathering the following pieces of information at a minimum:
This is tedious but important work! Once you have been in a position where you DON’T have this vital information, you know what a priority it should be for all of us, no matter our age or experience. A 50-something-year-old friend who went through a similarly challenging care management situation told me her experience changed the way she handles her family’s affairs, even with adult children. She now makes lists of everything essential to her household and communicates this information directly to family members.
“After my father’s death, I created a document for my family with tons of financial information – monthly withdrawals, loan and credit card information, medical information plus the usual will and lawyer information. I also included a list of friends with their contact numbers of who would be helpful resources. I have a lot of family pieces and created an inventory of those, too,” she shared. “I have declared talking about finances is like sex education when kids are little. Just like everyone has private parts, we all have checking accounts. I don’t want my family having to call banks to find out if we banked there.”
Another experienced friend advocates making a spreadsheet with everything there is to know about your home.
“Get a spreadsheet going of monthly bills, insurance premiums, utilities, lawn care, cleaning service, pest control, income stream, doctors, and regular prescriptions,” she suggested. “In other words, how is the household maintained? Who has access to their place?” she suggested.
If the hardest step is the first, I think we’ve done well today. In next month’s column, we’ll take the second step: Penning your obituary and considering plans for your funeral, or not. Looking forward to it!
Susanna Barton is an agebuzz guest blogger addressing themes of caregiving, helping aged loved ones, and encouraging critical conversations about the senior experience. She has been a professional writer covering business, community, and senior issues in Jacksonville, FL, for nearly 30 years and currently serves on Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan’s subcommittee for eldercare. Her book Grand Plans: How to Mitigate Geri-Drama in 20 Easy Steps and its accompanying workbook, the Grand Planner, are available on Amazon and through the Grand Plans website. Follow Grand Plans on Facebook at @MyGrandPlans and on Instagram at @GrandPlans2022. Sign up for the Grand Plans newsletter via Substack and find the Grand Plans podcast on most major hosting sites. You can contact Susanna Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org.