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It's hard to know where to start when you have to make decisions about the care of an elder. There is no one right way. 

The good news is there are a lot of resources available in the United States to help you figure out how to care for an elder. Early on, you should speak with an attorney about implementing several important legal documents that will greatly ease your job as care-giver. The sooner you can put these in place, the easier your job will be. Find an attorney.

Durable Financial Power of Attorney: Appoints a trusted person to act and speak for another person, such as an elder. Depending on the terms, it may cover buying and selling real estate, management of personal property, stock and bond transactions, banking and insurance. A durable power of attorney remains in effect even after your elder becomes incapacitated. A non-durable power of attorney does not.

Durable Health Care Power of Attorney: The same idea as a financial power of attorney but allows the PoA to act on health-care matters including making decisions about medical treatments.

Health Care Proxy: Similar to a Health Care Power of Attorney and in some states is interchangeable with a PoA.

Living Will: Documents a person's wishes regarding life-prolonging medical treatments, but does not permit another person to make decisions about life-prolonging medical treatments.

Assessing Your Elder's Needs

Assessing your elder's needs is the next step in finding care. Several tools are available to help you perform a needs assessment, including the National Caregivers Library's Needs Assessment Worksheet (PDF) and a checklist of care needs (PDF) published by the Family Caregiver Alliance in their Handbook for Long-Distance Caregivers.

Once you do an initial assessment, you can contact a care provider who will help you determine whether their services are right for your elder. Representatives from a facility may come to your elder's home to help make the assessment.

It may also be helpful to consult a geriatric care manager and/or your elder's doctor for an assessment, although a doctor will not be able to discuss your elder's medical record with you without explicit permission from your elder.

Resources

Geriatric Care Managers

In addition to performing an assessment, a geriatric care manager (GCM) can assist you with finding, evaluating and coordinating services of all types for your elder. As a skilled professional, a GCM can be especially useful in the early stages of finding care and for people trying to organize care from a distance. Costs vary depending on tasks performed and time spent.

Useful Agencies and Institutions

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Aging (AoA) is the overarching agency for elder services in the United States. The AoA's Elder Care Locator database has contact information for state and local agencies on aging to help you find services for your elder.

The National Clearinghouse for Long-Term Care Information provides an excellent overview of elder care (sometimes called "long-term care"). This site will give you the lay of the land, including definitions of commonly used terms and a break-down of the many kinds of services available.

The Medicare Web site has extensive resources for Medicare recipients and their caregivers, including explanations of benefits, searchable databases of participating doctors, hospitals and nursing homes, and information about senior health and long-term planning issues. The Medicare Rights Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Medicare recipients and their caregivers understand the Medicare system and get access to care. Its services include English- and Spanish-language helplines.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers many benefits, including health and wellness programs, mental health services, nursing home care and burial support, to people who have served in the military and to their spouses.

Helpguide.org's "Caregiving & Support" resource provides insightful and helpful information about many aspects of elder care.

Family Caregiving 101, the outreach program of the National Family Caregivers Association and the National Alliance for Caregiving, helps you manage your caregiving process and find support.

Books

For an excellent guide through the elder care process, check out Elder Care for Dummies by Rachelle Zukerman, Ph.D.

Ethnic, Religious and Sexual Orientation Communities

There are a number of organizations that provide information, advocacy and links to services for elders in specific ethnic, religious and sexual orientation communities.