What's my liability if my parent gets hurt or dies in their home that I live in?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Let us say, for the sake of discussion, that I am an adult caregiver for an elderly parent. Let's also say that I am temporarily living at the home of my elder parent--because he, or she, needs more careful monitoring, these days.

If I wish to leave my elderly parent alone for a couple of hours--and he, or she, has a home electronic emergency response system, which the elder parent has used before and is familiar with--what is my liability....as caregiver/adult child if the elder parent:

falls off a safe couch where he is placed before I've left; but hurts himself, becomes diabled, or is knocked unconscious, etc?

or, God forbid, dies of a heart attack or stroke for example?

What is my liability, if any, if I wasn't there for those several hours to help--if my mother or father did not have the wherewithal to call for help, with his, or her, emergency response system?

What is my liability, even if he, or she DOES use the emergency system?

Can the police, ambulance drivers, medics, or firemen charge me with liability if I'm not there?

If I'm gone for a few hours, at a time, I can't always find a homecare assistant for such stop-gap measures. And what do I do, if I am charged with a crime of negligence, falsely and erroneously--because the first responders (including the police), in the town, do not know the law....and before the charges are dropped, days or weeks later, our family's reputation is smeared in the local papers?

This does happen!!

Any comments, on these matters, would be most appreciated.

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

The scenario you paint raises a number of interesting issues and questions.

While there is no such thing as a foolproof system for ferreting out erroneous complaints, there are a number of protections for caregivers who are acting in good faith to provide the care that an elderly parent needs.

There are, however, strict laws against elder abuse in every state--passed for the loftiest reason: the need to keep vulnerable older people safe and protected. Those laws"”which may be invoked by any person"”protect against a wide range of wrongful behavior, including neglect and abandonment.

To safeguard against such charges, or from into caretaking that may not be the best fit for a parent's needs, it may be necessary to plan ahead. While it's true that it is often difficult to secure stopgap homecare aides on short notice, there should be alternatives for those who need to be away frequently for hours at a time from a parent who cannot be left unattended.

It's best to secure a number of possibilities to fill in the gaps"”and while emergency response systems can be a help in monitoring, they are usually no substitute for human ears and eyes. Trustworthy friends and neighbors may be willing to give a few hours respite to caregivers when needed, as well as volunteers from community or church groups. And there are also a growing number of homecare services that now provide this form of temporary care on-call when needed. Most communities also provide adult daycare and adult day healthcare services; consult the listings under "adult care ”or contact the local area office on aging at www.n4a.org/about-n4a/?fa=aaa-title-VI for local resources.

The local Adult Protective Services office can also be of great help. Caregivers in need of respite or stopgap custodial care can consult the office for local sources of help. And those who feel they may be wrongfully accused of neglecting or mistreating an elderly parent should also be able to get confidential advice and counsel.

And those who feel they are wrongfully accused of elderly abuse or neglect should also consider hiring an experienced elder law attorney for help"”both for damage control and to help gather and prepare the evidence they may need to refute the charges.

Finally, while there are examples all around of publications that regularly ignore the rules of ethics, it would be unethical indeed for any newspaper to publish stories of unsubstantiated charges. In the rare case where this did occur, it would again be advisable to secure the services of an experienced attorney for help.