This is the first in a series of articles about the issues that arise over time in older people who experience mental declines -- and how you, as a family member or friend, can help.
Edith, 75, begged her children to help her make decisions about her investments. They refused. They were busy, and they didn't want to be responsible if their advice didn't work out. Edith was careful about money. They were sure she'd make good decisions.
When Edith was 78, her second husband, Dalton, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The couple agreed that Edith would start managing their joint checking account.
When she was 80, Edith showed her daughter Jeanne her financial files. Jeanne became alarmed. The records were a mess. Reluctantly, she offered to help.
She started by trying to figure out how much money her mother and stepfather had coming in and going out. She was baffled to find that the checkbook did not have any balances entered into it. Ever.
She asked, "Mom, how do you know that you won't bounce a check if you don't know what your bank balance is?"
Edith just smiled and shrugged.
Jeanne was then shocked to discover that Edith and Dalton had over $100,000 sitting at the local bank in five checking accounts - four of which they had forgotten about.
Still reeling, Jeanne then tried to figure out how they got cash out of the bank. Their checkbook didn't show any cash withdrawals.
She asked, "Do you get cash from an ATM?"
Edith said, "A what?"
Jeanne replied, "It's a machine at the bank. You insert your bank card, type in a four-digit code, and get cash from the machine."
Edith frowned. "Cash from a machine? What are you talking about?"
Jeanne tried another tack. "Do you get cash from the teller at the bank?"
Edith was getting annoyed. "What do you mean?"
Jeanne persisted, "Do you go to the counter in the bank and give the teller a check or a withdrawal slip and get money back, actual dollar bills?"
Edith said, "No, never!" She sounded affronted.
Jeanne asked, "Where does the money in your wallets come from?"
Edith declared, "I don't have any money!"
Dalton echoed, "I don't have any money!"
Jeanne had seen the contents of both of their wallets an hour earlier. They each had about $100 in cash.
Jeanne asked gently, "Dalton, where do you get money when you need it to put in the collection plate in church on Sunday?"
Dalton brightened up and looked very happy. He could finally answer one of
Jeanne's questions. He announced triumphantly, "I get it from Edith!"
If you find a similar state of affairs with your family or friends, what can you do?
Recognize that slips in managing day-to-day finances are often an early sign of mental decline, according to research reported in the New York Times.
One retirement community official told me that they don't allow automated payment of their monthly bills. Often, failure to pay the bills is the canary in the coal mine that alerts them to the fact that residents have become unable to manage their finances.
Learn more about the problem of declining ability to manage money by visiting Investor Protection Trust at www.investorprotection.org. A survey showed that 20 percent of the elderly have lost money due to financial scams because they have lost the ability to manage their finances well.
The write-up about that survey includes links to both a pocket guide for doctors that explains how to screen people for possible problems handling their money, and a brochure with information for patients and their families.
The Journal of the American Medical Association urged doctors to be on the lookout for patients with money management problems. However, it is the rare doctor who will manage to fit this screening into the already short and rushed office visit.
Ask for advice from the individual's doctors, but if they don't see a problem, don't assume that everything is fine. If your parents grew up during the Great Depression and tracked every penny your entire life, finding that they have lost track of bank balances or entire bank accounts should set off big alarms.