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Warning Signs That Your Parent’s Finances Are Off Track

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“I just can’t get the cheque book to balance this month.” These words were my first red flag that Mom might not be as sharp as she once was. I was taken by surprise. She had managed her own finances and was a bookkeeper for many years, and all I provided was a little coaching. She never missed her appointments and medications and often reminded me of important dates. How did I miss the signs? Was I intentionally being ‘unaware’ of these flags? The answer was yes, because I didn’t want her to change. This is true for most adult children as they watch their parents’ abilities decline.

When Finances Go Awry

Even those who are young and healthy can have trouble managing their finances. Things don’t improve as the years pass, and the situation can deteriorate pretty quickly if no one is paying attention. The reasons why aging parents need help vary, and they can be sneaky or abrupt. Regardless of the underlying reasons, it is highly likely that Mom and Dad will require help some day when it comes to assisted living.

Financial difficulties are partly due to illness and the medications they could be taking. Resolutely independent, we fight to maintain our mental fitness with crossword puzzles, word games, solitaire and Jeopardy. But in our 80s and 90s, illness like lupus or dementia can take its toll on our brain function, affecting our ability to manage our money.

A study published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that financial capacity decreases with advancing age, especially for women. Be observant. If you notice a problem in a seemingly unrelated area, there might be problems managing other areas of independent living. Difficulty with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as eating, bathing and transferring, and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs), such as housekeeping, meals, and managing medications are often associated with increased risk of financial incapacity. Physical illness, medication side-effects, loss of a partner and depression are among the most common triggering influences.

Finances can also get off track because your aging parents don’t have as much money as they used to. They may be too proud or independent to let you know. Retirees often experience a decline in income and assets, which can be due to the loss of a spouse, price increases, inadequate spending habits and unsuitable investments.

Signs They May Have Financial Troubles

Money is a very personal matter. It was a relief when my parents overcame their independent spirit and admitted the problem to me. I responded with an offer to help… but did not take over. Armed with my calculator, I assured them it would just take a few minutes to straighten everything out. However, I bit more than I could chew as I discovered more and more that hasn’t been taken care of.

Mom didn’t have the obvious signs of trouble like piled up mail, bounced checks, forgetfulness, unpaid bills or calls from creditors. I made sure her taxes were on target and had set up automated payments for her utilities. She didn’t have a computer, so she couldn’t get in trouble online. Fortunately, she occupied herself by watching TV Land and the Game Show Network, unlike the mother of one of my clients, who preferred TV shopping channels and stashed her purchases (including 21 sets of sheets) in her basement!

Yet, I discovered that Mom had mounting credit card debt because she had been charging her medications, making mail order purchases and donating money to charities. She admitted that she bought gifts for the family and believed she had a better chance of winning one of the various sweepstakes advertised in junk mail flyers if she bought something. She purchased lottery tickets so she could leave us a “legacy.”

She gave cash gifts to her cleaning lady on top of her hourly charges, “because she is such a nice girl.” Fortunately, she had not given her anything more valuable, although a piece of keepsake jewelry disappeared mysteriously during that time.

Luckily, Mom had learned to hang up on telemarketers or tell them “she’s not home” when they asked for her by name. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 80 percent of telemarketing scam victims are over age 65, especially those who live alone and look forward to the phone ringing.

How to Keep an Eye on Your Parent’s Financial Wellbeing

My mom had a variety of financial issues when I finally stepped in, and your parents may have some unique problems of their own. The National Council on Aging suggests that planning for this situation should begin with a family meeting, ideally in your parent’s early 60s. For many, though, that opportunity has passed. However, it is still up to family caregivers to provide the best safety net we can. Look for the following red flags in addition to the ones I observed with my mom.

If possible, discuss appointing a financial power of attorney (POA) before any issues or signs of incompetence arise. This will give you or another responsible family member the legal ability to manage their finances. Should they become incompetent without naming a POA, guardianship proceedings may be necessary.

Remember, it’s still their money. As long as they are competent, they have the right to choose how to spend it and make their own mistakes. Your goal is to help them retain their independence (and their financial security) for as long as possible.