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Seniors: Keep Key Documents Handy

If someone asked your adult children when you last saw a doctor, could any of them answer? What if you were asked for a list of specialists you've seen in the last five years or the results of hospital tests you've had in that period? Can your spouse find your birth certificate?

The time to pull all that together is now, when you have time, experts on aging say. If you need admission to a long-term care facility, for instance, having the right documents gathered together can ease the process. Missing information may slow admission.

Collect your information

How can you ensure you'll get the services you need in the future? Gather what you might need to get those services now. Most facilities require information on a person's health care providers—primary care and specialists—for the last five years, as well as information on any hospital admissions. It helps to have a record of the names and addresses of your health care providers, the dates of your office visits, and hospitalizations.

Other information that might be needed on short notice includes birth certificates, bank statements, proof of insurance, military discharge papers, and proof of assets.

It's important to remember that situations change. You may have adequate finances at the start of care. But within a couple of years, or even a few months, you may need to apply for Medicaid, the state and federal health care program for people who have exhausted their assets. Then it may become important to produce certain financial records that weren't needed earlier.

It's easy to say you'll cross those bridges when you reach them. But taking the time now to organize records will actually build those bridges.

To start building

  • Get a large notebook. In the front, write your full legal name, Social Security number, legal residence, and information on health and life insurance, including policy numbers.

  • On the next page, write your date and place of birth, the name and addresses of your spouse and children, and where your will can be found.

  • Use the notebook to document any special arrangements you've made for care. If you've named a health care proxy, completed an advance directive, or set up a living will, note the details and the document locations.

  • Record the location of other important records, such as your birth certificate, military discharge papers, bank statements, and mortgage papers.

  • Use the rest of the notebook to track your current medical history. Write the date, time, name, and phone number for any health-related visit. List reasons and outcomes.

  • In a separate file, put records on sources of income and assets, Social Security and Medicare data, investment information, bank accounts, and safe deposit box locations.

  • Ask for copies of medical records and hospital discharge records. Put them in an expandable file you keep with the notebook.

  • In another expandable file, put copies of all important financial and legal documents. Keep this file with your other records.

  • When you start to gather information, tell more than one relative or trusted friend you're doing it and where it is.

Documents you need

Check off each item you assemble, then write down its location. When you've checked off every item, put the list with your important papers. Tell trusted friends or relatives where it is.

Personal items

  • Birth certificate

  • Marriage license

  • Divorce papers

  • Citizenship papers

  • Military discharge

  • Prearrangements for burial

Financial items

  • Social Security records

  • Medicare documents

  • Investment records

  • Negotiable securities

  • Insurance records

  • Bank statements (both checking and savings)

  • Credit card information

  • Most recent income tax return

  • Mortgage papers

  • Loan papers

Legal documents

  • Power of attorney

  • Will

  • Trust documents

  • Health care proxy

  • Living will

The Family Caregiver Alliance provides a free, online checklist to help people organize important information.