In support of Dementia Action Week 2022, wills, trusts and probate solicitor Andrew Hitchon from law firm Bray & Bray discusses some key considerations to make when supporting a client living with dementia.
The Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Action Week unites individuals, workplaces, and communities to take action and improve the lives of people living with dementia. This year’s campaign runs from 16th-22nd May and the theme is diagnosis.
The period following a dementia diagnosis is an incredibly difficult time for everyone involved, so as a legal professional, it is important to provide reassurance and ensure the future wishes of a client living with dementia are correctly carried out.
Solicitors need to tailor and adapt their practices to meet the needs of people affected by dementia. Indeed, it is crucial to get practical legal issues sorted as early on as possible whilst an individual with dementia has the mental capacity to make reasoned decisions, as this can ease the pressure later down the line. It can also help to reassure family members that they are doing the right thing for their loved one.
Identify your clients’ communicative needs
When a client is vulnerable, it is important to correctly identify their needs and ascertain if they have the mental capacity to make the decisions required. They may need support to express their wishes, provide valid instructions and understand legal advice.
You should find out whether your client has any preferences for communicating with you and for how services are provided – for example, how documents are presented or delivered. Ensure any written communication is clear and concise and avoid complex legal jargon where possible to make the content easy to understand.
Make reasonable adjustments
When arranging a meeting with a client living with dementia, consider whether they can comfortably visit your offices or if a home visit would put them at ease and help with communication. To facilitate the wide-ranging needs of people with dementia, as a minimum, your premises must be accessible, easy to find, and have space to accommodate clients, and be a welcoming environment.
Offer flexibility around appointment times so the client can choose a time of day that suits their mental and physical needs best. For example, they may feel more aware and less fatigued in the morning. You may also need to allow extra time for meetings with clients who need longer to understand what is being explained to them. Breaking the meeting down into manageable chunks may also be helpful and provide the client with opportunities to take rest breaks.
If written communication is easier for a client to process, provide a written overview of the points discussed in the meeting. It may also be necessary to maintain eye contact or speak slowly throughout the meeting.
Take the appropriate legal steps
Encouraging your client to either create or update their Will whilst they are still able is the best way of ensuring their wishes are followed. It is also advisable for people living with dementia to make a lasting power of attorney (LPA) to give permission in advance to a trusted person or people to make decisions on their behalf when they no longer have the capacity to decide for themselves. There are two types of LPAs and clients can choose to make one type or both:
- Health and welfare – the trusted person or people can make decisions on medical care and on welfare matters, such as living arrangements.
- Property and financial affairs – the trusted person or people can make decisions on managing financial affairs and deal with property.
An LPA must be put in place while a person living with dementia still has mental capacity to do so. However, in cases where a person has already lost the capacity to make an LPA, a request can be made to the Court of Protection for the ability to carry out decisions on their behalf, which is known as deputyship. As with LPAs, there are two types of deputyships:
- Personal welfare – the deputy can make decisions about medical treatment and care.
- Property and financial affairs – the deputy can take care of a person’s financial affairs and property.
Setting up a trust may be another practical step to take to ensure a person living with dementia has control over the future of their financial assets, like property or savings, while they are still able. There are a number of different types of trusts and ways of arranging them.
Increase your awareness and understanding of dementia
As a legal professional, you can undergo specialist dementia training that will allow you to work with dementia sufferers and their families more effectively.
The first step you can take towards this is becoming a Dementia Friend. The Dementia Friends programme is an initiative by the Alzheimer’s Society that aims to help raise awareness and understanding of dementia in the community. By attending an in-person or virtual information session, you can learn more about dementia, how it affects a person, and what you can do to help people affected by dementia in your community.
The Alzheimer’s Society also provides the opportunity for you to become a Dementia Friends Ambassador. Within the role, you continue to work to raise awareness and change attitudes about dementia, but also deliver Dementia Friends sessions and get involved in other community activities. The Alzheimer’s Society provide all the resources you need, allowing you to train up your fellow colleagues to ensure staff across the firm are confident in supporting and communicating with individuals with dementia.
By understanding the best way to start a conversation with someone living with dementia about their future arrangements, legal practitioners can provide a compassionate, transparent service and truly make a positive difference to the lives of the individual and their family members.
Andrew Hitchon is a private client Partner and jointly heads up the wills, trusts and probate department at Midlands law firm, Bray & Bray. He is a full member of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP).