Being diagnosed with a degenerative disease at a young age is devastating. Your doctor can tell you what to expect but may not be able to tell you when to expect it. You could feel healthy and be completely capable of continuing to work and care for your family for years to come, but you can’t avoid the inevitable. As hard Estate Planner Helping to Protect a Familyas it is, it is a good idea to take care of some important estate planning issues a soon as possible after your diagnosis. This will save your family from difficult decisions down the road and could also protect them from financial hardship or even bankruptcy. As elder law and estate planning attorneys in Texas and Arkansas, we know how important it is for you to provide for your family, and we are here to help make sure that happens, even after your disease has left you incapacitated.

Degenerative Diseases That Take a Toll on Families and Finances

A degenerative disease is one in which the affected body system deteriorates over time, sometimes very slowly. While medications, therapies, and lifestyle changes can sometimes slow down the process, there is no cure for this family of diseases. Examples of degenerative diseases include the following:

  • Early-onset Alzheimer’s. When Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is diagnosed in someone under the age of 65, it is considered younger-onset. While rare, Alzheimer’s can affect people in their 30s or 40s. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s may be overlooked by doctors if the patient is in this age group and explained away as stress, depression, or menopause. Once this devastating diagnosis is confirmed, it’s important to take steps to make your medical wishes known and protect your assets.
  • Parkinson’s disease. A progressive nervous-system disorder, Parkinson’s disease causes tremors, slowed movement, rigid muscles, loss of involuntary movement, and changes in speech. It usually develops in people aged 60 or older and can progress to the point of complete disability. In the latter stages of Parkinson’s, patients could need a home healthcare aide or a long-term care facility.
  • Multiple sclerosis. MS is a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts communication between the brain and the body. It can be diagnosed in people as young as 20 but is highly unpredictable. Some people live a mostly normal life for many years, while others suffer physical and cognitive decline. If you are diagnosed with MS, it would be smart to plan for the worst.
  • ALS. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, once known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It can strike people as young as 40 and causes the sufferer to gradually lose the ability to walk, talk, eat, and—eventually—breathe. Once diagnosed, life expectancy is two to five years.
  • Huntington’s disease. A rare genetic disease, Huntington’s eventually affects all functional abilities causing movement, cognitive, and psychiatric disorders. Symptoms typically begin in your 30s or 40s, and life expectancy is around 15 or 20 years after symptoms begin. As the disease progresses, a long-term care facility may be needed.

These diseases—along with a host of other degenerative conditions—require patients to confront the likelihood of disability and early mortality at a relatively young age. As difficult as this is, it is vital for your own protection as well as your family’s security.

How Our Elder Law Team Can Help

Older people are often well aware of the importance of getting their affairs in order. Even without a diagnosis of a disabling condition, they know that the odds are pretty good that they or their spouse could become incapacitated or die in the next several years, so they make it a priority to update their existing estate plan or create a new one. People in their 50s and 60s, however, are much less likely to confront the possibility of death or disability and are, therefore, more reluctant to talk to an estate planning attorney about these issues. A diagnosis of a degenerative disease should be the catalyst that gets you into an attorney’s office to discuss:

  • Wishes for your care. It’s a tough conversation to have with loved ones, but we can walk you through how to inform your family of what your wishes are for long-term and end-of-life care. You might even want to tour facilities while you are able to make decisions for yourself and make your preferences clear. 
  • Powers of attorney. We will make sure you have the information and the documents you need to name someone to make healthcare decisions on your behalf when you are unable to do so and to take care of your financial business when you become incapacitated.
  • Asset protection. Degenerative diseases are extremely costly to manage, and medical bills could wipe out your savings in a few years. With an asset protection plan, you could provide for your spouse and preserve your children’s inheritance after you are gone.
  • Wills and Trusts. A devastating diagnosis means you will have to review your will and any trusts you have already established. If you don’t have a will, now is the time to write one.
Lisa B. Shoalmire
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Attorney And Senior Partner