We’ve known for some time that the population in the UK is an ageing one, a testament to significant medical breakthroughs and a general improvement in our living and working conditions.
It means that there is a greater prospect of people enjoying a more fruitful retirement, and for much longer. According to official statistics, the average age of a UK resident has risen by two years, to 40 and it is anticipated that within 30 years, one in four people will be aged 65 and over.
However, not everyone will avoid illness, whether physical or mental, as they get older, and this means that there will inevitably be a greater responsibility on the younger generations to care for others, whether they are parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts or even in some cases, those who are not family.
A recent report from the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland revealed that guardianship orders rose 12 per cent between 2017-18 and the year before, to 13,500. These figures bring into sharp focus the increasing onus on us as a population to be aware of the potential caring obligations we may encounter during our lives.
The majority of guardianships are for people with a learning disability, and not far behind are dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
In most cases, applications for guardianships are made by a relative, or a carer, or even a friend. But the key point is that in many situations, the need to have the power to look after the affairs of another can be unexpected and if plans haven’t been put in place, the consequences can be expensive but more importantly stressful for all involved.
Guardianships can be a helpful option when the necessary care of another has been identified, but it can also be a complex, lengthy and expensive legal process.
For one group in particular, the process can be a source of tension and anxiety at a time when they are possibly least prepared.
The sandwich generation – so-called due to their job of caring and paying for both their children and their parents, or grandparents – can find themselves being stretched emotionally and financially.
This group have found themselves under increasing pressure, particularly since the financial crisis and the period of austerity we’ve seen since then.
Wage rises have been sluggish at best in the last few years and – combined with the significant increases in house prices, especially in Edinburgh and the surrounding areas – the financial burden has risen considerably.
In many cases, both partners are working to pay for day-to-day necessities, including child care, but the calls on income don’t stop there.
We’re regularly reminded of the need to try and save for our own retirement and, for those who didn’t begin to do this early in their working lives, the cost can be significant. A sudden additional cost may well curtail the ability to do this, with the inevitable longer term knock-on effects.
Putting in place a guardianship order is not something that is ever considered lightly but the simple fact is that we can never know when or if any of us or our family will lose our ability to manage our own affairs or make decisions for ourselves, making the order necessary.
In effect, a guardian can be likened to an attorney appointed by a court. Unless legal aid is available, the cost of the process can run into the many thousands of pounds and there is absolutely no certainty that the individual chosen or appointed would have been your preferred option.
The Scottish Government has recognised the issues around the guardianship process and is committed to reforming the Adults with Incapacity Act. However until there is a final outcome, there are some actions that everyone can take to ensure that life is made easier, particularly for those who may have to care for us.
There is a system in place to cater for those eventualities where individuals no longer possess the ability to care for themselves. A Power of Attorney is a legal document which brings with it a range of rights and responsibilities. At its core, it gives one person the power to act on behalf of another, either financially or in welfare matters and decision-making. The safeguards are clear, and most importantly it can only be set up while you have the ability to make decisions for yourself. It is also much quicker, cheaper and less complex than a guardianship order, and it allows you to retain control and choose who you wish to make decisions on your behalf, thereby providing the peace of mind we’d all desire.
None of us would ever want to consider the possibility of someone like our parents being unable to look after their own affairs. Neither, I suspect, do we want others to find themselves in a difficult situation if we ourselves were to be incapacitated to a similar degree.
For those that can, we have a responsibility to make the appropriate arrangements for the unexpected. We can never know what the future holds, but being prepared might be the best gift we can give our loved ones.
James MacKinnon is head of private client at Aberdein Considine in Edinburgh