When Karen Milligan of Lexington lost her job in retail merchandising, she decided to volunteer with the Massachusetts Money Management Program while hunting for work. It matched her with a man in his late 80s whose finances were in shambles.
His bills were piling up, and debt collectors were calling. Milligan's job was to help organize the man's finances and devise a budget so he could pay his rent and buy necessities.
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Milligan, 46, began working out payment plans with collection agencies. She persuaded her client to get rid of his debit and credit cards and developed a weekly spending allowance. When he needed dental work, she helped devise a plan to pay for it. When he wanted to renew his membership in a fraternal organization, she helped negotiate a reduced fee.
“It’s gratifying. You spend a little bit of your time, and it has such an impact,” said Milligan, who devotes a few hours each month to helping her client.
Milligan is one of more than 1,400 volunteers in the Massachusetts Money Management Program, a free program that helps low-income older (60-plus) and disabled adults pay their bills, budget their money and manage debt. The program is a collaboration among the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs, Mass Home Care and the AARP Foundation.
Since the program's launch in 1991, more than 9,000 clients have gotten help, and requests for assistance are growing, said Cheryl Cannon, the program’s statewide coordinator.
Fallout from the recession is driving up the number of people in need, with more than 150 on a waiting list, she said. Clients are often referred through social workers or other service providers who notice unpaid bills piling up or other signs of financial difficulties.
People can also sign up for financial management help through any of 25 elder service agencies across Massachusetts that administer the state-funded program.
“Many seniors are under great financial stress for many reasons. We know many are struggling to meet basic needs. Our volunteers help clients get their lives back on track,” said Linda F. Fitzgerald, president of AARP Massachusetts, which helps recruit volunteers from its 800,000 members.
Volunteers undergo criminal and background checks before being trained and matched with clients. They organize budgets and prepare bills for payment, monitor clients’ bank statements or serve as a government-appointed manager of clients’ money when they are incapable of doing it for themselves.
The volunteer program also helps clients victimized by fraud or exploited for money.
“Financial abuse of elders is growing exponentially,” said Cannon. “The volunteers are a first line of defense.” Volunteers notice whether a client is spending on unnecessary purchases or falling prey to scams or predatory telemarketers.
Dennis Johnson, 57, a Dorchester resident who has volunteered with the program since 2008, said his client, a developmentally disabled 90-year-old woman, had been fleeced by an acquaintance when he met her. She had uncashed annuity checks sitting in envelopes but was six months behind in rent, and her phone service had been cut off. Johnson helped her catch up with her bills within months. She was even able to take a trip to Seattle to visit family.
Johnson stressed that patience and keen listening skills are as important as money management know-how. “If you are able to balance your own checkbook, you can do this,” he said.
To volunteer with the Money Management Program, visit aarp.org/ma or call 1-866-448-3621 toll-free.
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Jill Gambon is a freelance writer and editor based in West Newbury, Mass.