A parent's primary responsibility is to make sure that their children are healthy, happy, and safe. As children grow into adults and parents begin to age—these roles may reverse. If a parent's health becomes compromised and they can no longer care for themselves, it often falls to their adult child to support them. This reversal of roles can be emotionally, physically, and financially exhausting.

Fortunately, a sick or disabled parent may qualify for financial assistance in the form of Social Security Disability benefits. If you are a child or family caregiver, you can use disability benefits to pay for your parent's everyday expenses, medical bills, and supportive care.

Before you and your loved one begin the application process for disability benefits, it is important that you understand what benefit options are available and what the application process entails. The preparation will go a long way towards maximizing the Social Security benefits your loved one receives.

Definition of Disability

Although your family member may be sick, elderly, or injured, it is not always clear if their ailments are considered to be a "disability." For this reason, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has a set definition of disability. If a person does not meet this definition, they will not be eligible for disability benefits.

The SSA's definition of disability is based on a person's ability to work and is made up of three criteria. These are as follows:

  • You cannot do the work that you were able to do prior to becoming disabled;
  • You have a medical condition that makes you unable to adjust to other types of work
  • Your medical condition has lasted—or is expected to last—for at least one year, or result in death.

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Technical Eligibility

If your parent meets the SSA's definition of disability, he or she may qualify for one—or both—types of Social Security Disability benefits. These include Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Each benefit program has its own set of technical eligibility requirements.

SSDI is an entitlement program that offers benefits to disabled workers. Eligibility for SSDI is based on work history and Social Security tax contributions. Individuals who are awarded SSDI benefits will automatically qualify for Medicare after a two year waiting period. Learn more about SSDI and how to qualify.

SSI is a type of welfare program that offers financial assistance to elderly, blind, or disabled individuals who have very little income. Eligibility for SSI is based on strict financial limitations. Once an individual is awarded SSI benefits, he or she will automatically qualify for Medicaid.

In some cases, applicants may qualify for benefits from both programs.

Medical Eligibility

In addition to meeting the SSA's definition of disability and the various technical eligibility requirements, applicants are also required to meet very specific medical criteria. These criteria vary from condition to condition and can be found in the SSA's blue book. Essentially, the blue book is an official manual that contains specific medical requirements for all potentially disabling conditions.

The blue book recognizes the following age-related health conditions:

  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Vision Loss/Impairment
  • Hearing Loss/Impairment
  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Dementia

To access all blue book listings, visit the SSA's website.

No matter the applicant's condition, to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits, all applications must include extensive medical evidence. This may include the findings of physical and mental exams, doctors' notes, surgical reports, imaging results, and lists of prescription medications.

The Social Security Disability Application Process

If you feel that your parent or loved one is a good candidate for disability benefits, you can begin the application process online at the SSA website or in person at your local Social Security field office. It is important to note that if the applicant is not physically or mentally capable of applying on their own, a caregiver or loved one is able to apply on his or her behalf.

Once you submit the initial application you may not receive a decision for several months. Although the application may be approved at this stage, you should always be prepared to face the possibility of a denial. If your loved one is denied, you have 60 days to file an appeal. While this may seem discouraging, you should realize that many more applicants are approved during the appeals phase than during the initial application.

The appeals phase of the application process is made up of two parts—the reconsideration and the appeal hearing. The reconsideration will allow you to correct any inconsistent or incomplete information and gives you the chance to supply further medical evidence of your loved ones condition. Some states do not have reconsideration and go straight to the appeal hearing.

Waiting for an appeal hearing is often the longest part of the process. On the day of your scheduled hearing, the applicant will appear before an administrative law judge to answer questions and provide proof of their disability. At this stage of the process, it may be in your best interest to retain the services of a qualified attorney or advocate. A legal professional will know exactly what the judge will expect and can increase your chances of success.

The key to being awarded benefits lies in preparation and persistence. If you research the application process and remain persistent in your efforts, your parent or loved one will be awarded the benefits you need to support them.

Molly Clarke is a writer for the Social Security Disability Help blog.