When Dementia Derails Your Parent’s Finances

Five steps you can take now to help Mom and Dad avoid a money mess

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Shirley Rexrode, right, helps her mother, Shou-Mei Li, care for her father, Hsien-Wen Li, who has Alzheimer's, at their home in San Francisco, Sept. 1, 2011.

Not long ago, I had coffee with my friend Jill whose father had recently passed away. He had suffered from dementia for more than a year, but no one picked up on it until the disease had progressed and her dad had stopped tending to household finances. Bills were unpaid, investments were in disarray and random payments had been made to charities he’d never supported before. Jill had spent long hours trying to unravel and correct the financial chaos he’d inadvertently created in the months before he died.

According to a recent report by the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 8 elderly Americans currently suffer from some form of dementia, and more than 15 million Americans provide some sort of care to affected individuals. As Time’s cover story details this week, many baby boomers are finding themselves responsible for making health care decisions for their parents. But boomers are also stepping in to help with financial matters. In many cases, this means taking over money management duties or paying for expenses out of their own pockets. The time and money involved can be significant.

(MORE: Five Tips for Families Facing End-of-Life Care)

With some proactive planning, you can help your parents stay on track financially and ensure that their desires for their financial legacy are respected and carried out. Taking the following steps while your aging parents are still healthy can help protect their finances and lay the groundwork for a transition in financial management should your parent develop dementia or other illness.

1. Talk about finances now. While your parents may hesitate to talk about money, or tell you to butt out of their business, it’s important to broach the topic. If you’re worried about having this conversation, consider coming at it by bringing up the national health care debate or discussing a friend’s situation like Jill’s. Then gently inquire whether your parents have made arrangements for long term care or if they have sufficient retirement income and respectfully offer assistance with managing their finances.

2. Set up automatic bill payments. If your parents are open to your help, suggest establishing online bank accounts and automatic bill payments. Arrange for social security payments, pension checks and other income to be deposited directly to a centralized account on a regular basis and for bills to be paid from this account. Systematized bill payments can help ensure that Mom and Dad won’t suddenly be in the dark or without air conditioning should they forget to pay the electricity bill.

(MORE: No Regrets! Successful Aging Means Letting Go of ‘What Ifs?’)

3. Help get legal documents in place. It is critical to determine whether your parents have created important legal documents, including durable powers of attorney. These documents, which must be drawn up by an attorney, will grant you the legal right to manage their finances or health-related affairs should they become incapacitated, enabling you to do such things as withdraw money from their accounts so you can cover their unpaid bills. Encourage your parents to update wills and beneficiary forms to reflect their wishes, and make sure deeds and titles for property or assets are current.

4. Compile contact info. While your parents may not feel comfortable granting you access to bank accounts and other important information and documents now, it’s crucial that you know how to find and access these things in the future. This includes account numbers for investments, bank lockbox keys, and computer login and passwords. Compile contact information for your parents’ attorney, banker, accountant and financial advisor. If your parents are open to it, join them in conversations with these professionals to learn more about their situation and to create a formal transition plan should they become unable to manage their own finances and other responsibilities.

5. Look for red flags. It’s important to stay in close contact, even if you don’t live near your aging parents. Pay careful attention and look for changes in behavior such as memory loss, challenges in planning or finishing projects or withdrawal from social activities. Whether or not these changes signal dementia, they could be a sign that it’s time to step in with help on money and other matters.

De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.

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