Looking back, the first clue to my dad’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease was his increasingly high stress levels when managing more complicated financial tasks, like refinancing the house, dealing with debt, managing a property in another state and organizing things for his accountant to do his taxes. My sister and I began helping him with some of these tasks, and bit by bit, I took over paying my parents’ bills. Eventually, I managed all of their financial matters. On top of intensive hands-on care, it was one of the most difficult aspects of caregiving for me.
Gradually increasing support
Mom had a stroke when she was just 63, so Dad had managed their finances for about 20 years. One day while visiting my parents, my dad (who was in his early 80s at the time) said he was going into his study to “work on the bills.” When I noticed he had been gone a long time, I went to check on him. He had many stacks of papers organized on his desk, with sticky notes on top saying “Ask Amy.” I respectfully asked if he would like some help with all the paperwork. I knew this would be a more palatable way to approach the subject than asking directly about managing or even “taking over” the finances. I was lucky; he said he’d be very grateful for the assistance. Many family caregivers struggle to convince their loved ones to accept help with finances.
I already had power of attorney for finances for both of my parents, and I was grateful that they had taken care of their advance directives and estate planning many years prior. Dad was still able to manage day-to-day finances, and I knew it was very important for him to maintain that, for both cognitive stimulation and self-esteem. So I focused on gently increasing support over time. I didn’t want to take on anything he was still able to do. No one wants to feel they are inept or that their personal matters need to be “taken over.” Dad was extremely intelligent, a university professor, and he had handled things for so long. I wanted to make it easier for him to accept help. While he did use a computer, I couched it as being easier for me to manage things because I knew more about using computers. He liked that idea.
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I managed their bill paying from their primary account and made everything paperless. The first couple of years, when I was living across the country from my parents, technology made handling finances doable. We opened a separate checking account, and I transferred money into it monthly so he could use it for “spending money” — groceries, gas, haircuts, Mom’s nails, his massages, clothing, dog care and minor household matters. He was able to use the ATM and write checks for those smaller expenses without worrying about the larger financial picture. I kept a close eye on things, and we never had a problem with that system. If you try this with your loved ones, be sure they can safely continue using checks, debit cards and smaller amounts of cash. I took full advantage of the ability to set up alerts and notifications for all their accounts, so I knew if an unusual amount of money was withdrawn or if balances were low.
This worked for several years until Dad’s dementia progressed to the point where he wasn’t driving or paying for many things directly. Still, he always kept a $20 bill in his wallet — it made him feel he had funds if he needed them — and if he lost it or it was stolen, the damage would be minimal. Eventually, I took over all their financial matters, including dealing with insurance.
Understanding the big picture
My parents had worked with an accountant and financial planner, and he was extremely helpful to me as I struggled to understand their financial situation, especially in the beginning. Dad just couldn’t explain all of it. And while he had a filing system that made sense to him, it did not to me. As I pieced it all together, I understood why Dad was overwhelmed — it really was complicated.
I’m sure Alzheimer’s had a lot to do with some of the financial decisions Dad made that were counter to his accountant’s recommendations. My parents had depleted most of their savings and investments by that time, putting a great deal into their property in Ohio. There was also debt.
In digging through his finances, I discovered that Dad was being scammed, and had been for many years. His “friend,” who would call and talk with him like a buddy, sent him cheap plastic bags and light bulbs in exchange for Dad’s “contributions” to his organization for disabled veterans. Except that when I investigated, there was no such organization. His phone number wouldn’t show in caller ID, so reporting the scam didn’t get me far. This man had taken advantage of Dad’s veteran status and of his good and trusting nature. I intercepted his calls and told him to stop calling; he wouldn’t. Eventually, when my parents moved to a senior community, I changed their phone number, and that finally stopped the calls. I’ll never know for sure how much money Dad gave this con artist.
It was a very time-consuming role. I spent many hours organizing the files, working on their budget, creating spreadsheets and trying to improve their debt situation. Later I kept track of things electronically, eliminating paper as much as possible. Eventually, we had to sell the farm in Ohio, which was extremely difficult. But it was a financial drain they couldn’t afford.
Health care costs were constantly changing and difficult to predict. I found ways to offset their care-related expenses by activating their long-term care insurance benefits and later obtaining veterans benefits for Dad. When we hired caregivers, I used a payroll service so that I could be sure all employer and employee taxes were paid accurately. My parents planned, but they could never have predicted the total costs for their care. I was constantly scrambling to figure out how to pay for it.
A debt snowball
But as I’ve outlined in my other columns, my parents’ expenses grew as their care needs increased and their health conditions became more complicated. Dad lived nearly six years after Mom passed on, and his income alone couldn’t cover all the care expenses. I tried to lower or eliminate his debt, but I ended up paying out of pocket for the expenses his budget couldn’t handle. That, in turn, created more debt for me and ultimately a devastating financial situation. I realize now that I put so much effort into straightening out my parents’ finances that I neglected to focus enough on protecting mine. I wish I’d also worked with a financial adviser to shore up my own financial future.
If you assume financial caregiving responsibilities, take your role very seriously. Get sound financial advice tailored to both your loved ones and to you and your own specific financial situation. AARP also now has a Financial Workbook for Family Caregivers, which is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, and a Military/Veterans version that can help you compile important financial documents, create a caregiving budget, and find other organizations that will support you and your family member through your caregiving journey.
Amy Goyer is AARP’s family and caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. Connect with Amy on Facebook, Twitter, in AARP’s Online Community and in the AARP Facebook Family Caregivers Group.