When you visit your aging mother or father, have you noticed any of the following?
- Your father gets 5-10 letters a day from charitable organizations;
- Before you leave, your mother asks you to mail a stack of envelopes;
- Your father is writing checks to Police and Fire Associations;
- Your mother has 20 new calendars and other “gifts” which she is eager to share with you;
- If you ask your mother for a note card, she opens a drawer full of them.
What’s going on?
Your parent has fallen into the charity trap. Mom wants to help people in need, but every time she writes a check, the charity sends back a thank you with the amount she gave. They also enclose another form asking for a new donation.
Your parent has received a call from a scam artist stating that he needs to pay a monthly fee to an association to get fire and police protection.
Your parent is being lured to write checks to receive a free gift—note cards, calendars, and rosaries etc.
Bottom line: your parent is displaying a diminished capacity for finances. Mom cannot remember if she wrote a check to a charity, so immediately responds with another donation; Dad is easily bilked out of his hard-earned money, thinking he needs protection; Mom doesn’t realize that nothing is ever free.
Caring for an elderly parent is a huge responsibility on many levels. Ultimately, it is possible that you will become responsible for your parent’s finances too. Just as you will need a plan for your parent’s living situation—you will also need money to cover that plan. Plain and simple.
While dealing with your own finances in this difficult economy, you might have overlooked checking on your parent’s finances. If you’re not up to speed concerning everything financial with this elder person, it’s time to make that happen.
A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reminded physicians and other caregivers to be alert to their clients’ diminished capacity as regards money matters. Here are some important points made by the authors:
- Alzheimer’s inevitably leads to loss of financial capacity
- Loss of financial capacity occurs early in the spectrum of Alzheimer’s disease, far earlier than loss of physical function
- Clinicians have the opportunity to intervene early, when patients have normal memory or are first showing signs of mild cognitive impairment and can still designate a Durable Power of Attorney for Finance
- Waiting until the disease has progressed has consequences – waiting leaves patients at risk for elder financial abuse, and conservatorship is expensive and can take months
- Clinicians don’t have to be financial advisers; they should be attentive to warning signs that the patient may have lost financial capacity, know when to refer for assessment of financial capacity, and educate and prepare patients and family members
The author of the JAMA article, Eric Widera writes about the necessity of discussing with and engaging your parent in advance financial planning: This is about giving patients with dementia a choice, respecting them as individuals, and working to maintain their autonomy even beyond the point where they can’t make decisions anymore. Proper financial planning will leave both the patient and caregiver with more financial resources to deal with the consequences of the disease.
It’s a daunting task, but as your parent ages you need to know everything about his bank account, social security check, pensions, annuities, savings accounts, insurance policies—including home and contents, life, and long term care—if there is one. You might also check to see if your parent has purchased a cemetery plot etc. And of course you need to know about outstanding debts.
Just as it was terribly hard to take the keys to the car away, it’s almost harder to remove the checkbook and stop the credit card. But it’s necessary and can be done using the proper tone and allowing some control to remain. Idea: set up a time during a visit with your parent when together you go through the bills and write out the checks. Over time, it’s possible that the desire for control will fade and your parent will just give it all over to you.
As you work to transfer everything in your name or to cancel memberships, be aware that there are lots of hurdles to jump. These are in place to protect your parent. When I wanted to cancel one of my mother’s credit cards, I had to show proof of my power of attorney—my words that my mother had dementia were not enough. Another time I had to use three-way calling so that the organization could ask my mother if she really wanted to discontinue. These things take time, but they are necessary. Think about doing them before your parent’s mental capacity becomes more diminished. By not approaching the issue for fear of hurting your parent’s feelings, much more damage can be done. We have to be vigilant and protect our elderly:
- a woman in a rehab facility had her social security card and credit card taken from her wallet. She did not have the mental capacity to know where her wallet was at all times. It should have been in a relative’s hands.
- another elderly woman gave $3,000 of her money (more than she could afford) to charities in a year’s time, until her children realized she was writing two or three checks a week. Those twenty-dollar checks add up.
If you need to talk to a financial advisor to get help dealing with your parent’s finances—do so. Pay for the meeting with funds from your parent’s bank account. Setting up co-signatory accounts will allow you to pay bills and have direct access to the balance sheet.
Don’t hesitate and don’t wait. Not only will your parent suffer if the money begins to dwindle because of poor financial decisions, but you and your siblings or other family members will too.
Photo: courtesy of LOTUS MONGER’S PHOTOSTREAM