How do you manage the family farm if an elderly parent has dementia or is unwell?

Few of us want to think about the possibility of losing our mental capacity or how our families would cope with our financial affairs and the running of a farm business if we did.

However, according to Karen Walsh, a solicitor practicing in Walsh and Partners, Solicitors, Dublin and Cork, who is from a farming background, it’s vital that farmers of all ages give careful consideration to these issues.

Author of ‘Farming and the Law’, Walsh advises all farmers to draw up an Enduring Power of Attorney (EPA) document. “This is a legal document that can be put in place which gives someone you trust the legal authority to make decisions on your behalf, about your financial affairs and welfare, should you lose the mental capacity to do so.”

The crucial thing to be aware of is that an EPA can only be set up while you are mentally stable, long before you need it.

In the absence of such a document, where a farmer is proven to be of unsound mind, they will have to be made a Ward of Court. This will give the judge the power to make decisions on the farmer’s behalf.

An EPA, Walsh said, only takes effect if the person becomes mentally incapacitated. It’s designed to be recognised by financial institutions, nursing homes and local authorities.

In cases where someone becomes mentally incapacitated without having an EPA, relatives can face long distressing delays and expense in applying to the High Court to have them made a Ward of Court, to take charge of their affairs, Walsh said.

“The issue of an elderly parent not being able to apply for Department of Agriculture grants becomes a real problem in the case where the parent suffers from dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, or some other mentally-debilitating disease which renders them incapable of making their own decisions,” she said.

Land or assets can’t be sold unless the person has been made a Ward of Court. “A farming business needs immediate attention and access to bank accounts and farm payments,” said Walsh.

If it was planned to transfer the farm to a son or daughter, this cannot take place if the parent is of unsound mind and an EPA isn’t in place, without an application being made to have the parent made a Ward of Court.

According to Walsh, few farm families think of putting EPAs in place. Yet, Tina Leonard, Head of Advocacy and Public Affairs at the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland, says that 4,000 Irish people get dementia every year.

“People have a natural reluctance to think about becoming ill or mentally unwell. However, any person who has assets, in particular a business such as a farm, needs to put safeguards in place in the event they become of unsound mind,” Walsh said.

It’s not just elderly farmers, but also younger people, who should draw up EPAs.

“A serious car crash or skiing accident could cause catastrophic injuries. The trauma of dealing with such situations is worsened when an EPA isn’t available, the solicitor and author said.

EPAs can be drawn up relatively inexpensively and represent excellent value for money compared to a Ward of Court application, according to Walsh. “They should be viewed a little like an insurance policy. They’re in place if ever needed in the future and if never required, then all the better.”

Meanwhile, Leonard said farmers and other people living in rural areas were at greater risk of being isolated. She urged neighbours to call in and visit those affected, and bring them to the mart, shops or anywhere else they normally went.

“There is a community responsibility here,” she said. She advised anyone interested in finding out more about the general issue to check out the Irish Hospice Foundation’s programme ‘Think Ahead’.