Of all the stressors you face as a family caregiver, handling your loved one’s money matters ranks as one of the toughest. Whether the older adult you care for has only just begun to have trouble balancing a checkbook or is in serious hot water due to cognitive decline, financial issues can quickly spiral out of control without your close intervention. For a caregiver, that’s no small challenge.
“In any of our lives, financial issues are one of our biggest stressors anyway,” said John Schall, chief executive officer of Caregiver Action Network. “Now you’re taking on this huge stress of the financial difficulties of your loved one—situations that you did not create, and that you don’t even have all the necessary tools to attack at your fingertips. It takes a tremendous toll mentally and emotionally on family caregivers. There’s no way to underestimate that.”
Despite this, family caregivers can benefit from a wealth of resources on the subject. Schall offered the following tips to help you help your loved one manage finances:
Take an inventory
“If the mail is piling up, probably that mail includes some bills, and if the bills are piling up, they’re not being paid. A lot of elder folks still balance their checkbooks—they write real checks, which this generation doesn’t do. If your loved one is amenable to you looking at the checkbook, take a look. They may be entering the checks that they wrote or they may not. They may not be balancing it after the fact, or the numbers just may not look right. You also want to pay attention to the phone calls they’re receiving. They may be receiving calls from collection agencies or credit card agencies or banks. Ask if they are receiving those.”
Guard against scams
“There’s been a tremendous increase in scam phone calls due to financial abuse of elders. If my mother, who’s 90 years old now, gets one of these, I’ve told her to say immediately, ‘I need to talk to my son first.’ The minute she says that, the other end of the line goes dead. I’ve told her just to call me right afterwards and we can figure out whether it’s real or whether it’s a scammer. I’ve said, ‘Don’t feel hesitant. Don’t feel like you’re bothering me or be too embarrassed to talk about it.’ Also, if there’s a big transaction all of a sudden, it’s a very, very good sign that there’s financial abuse. Banks can catch that in their algorithms, but there’s no reason you can’t talk to them and say, ‘Please let us know if you see any big transactions.’”
Broach the subject delicately
“You don’t want to make it condescending or patronizing. That will simply spur real defensiveness on the part of your loved one. You have to gently and compassionately ask questions like, ‘Do you think you’re having any trouble with …?’ or, ‘Can I help you, are the bills piling up, have you noticed any difficulty in balancing the checkbook, are you receiving any strange letters or phone calls from the bank or from the credit card companies?’ Then when you are ready to take action, it shouldn’t be, ‘Okay, I’m going to take all of this over from you,’ but more like, ‘Well, let’s make sure that I have a financial power of attorney so that I can make these decisions,’ or, ‘Let’s put my name on the checking account so I can help you write the checks.’ It could even be more, ‘We’ll just make it a convenience account where I can pay the bills but the money isn’t mine.’ It’s a matter of being straightforward, open and honest but very sympathetic.”
Automate bill paying
“My mother’s been handling the bills for 70 years, and never with the slightest bit of trouble. Now she second-guesses herself, so I say, ‘I’ll just do the automatic payments.’ Sometimes I have to talk to her a little bit because she thinks, ‘They’ll have my checking account number and they’ll have my credit card number, and then someone’s going to take that and use it against me.’ Well, of course there’s always the possibility of bank fraud but it’s going to happen whether you write a check or make an online payment. You might have to have a little more extended conversation or bring it up a couple of times. But there’s no question that automating payments is much, much safer than having them do it the way they always have.”
Gather necessary documents
“Almost nobody has everything in one place, handy-dandy for someone to find in terms of all the accounts, all passwords, all insurance documents. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were? But that’s just not how real life works. It’s nice to track down documents with our loved ones before they get to a state where they can’t tell us. You kind of have to look everywhere, pull out everything you can, look in various places. It’s challenging for the family caregiver because they’ll say, ‘Oh they’re all in that one drawer,’ or ‘They’re all in that little box in the closet.’ Often, it’s the case that you’re looking in lots of different places and over the course of weeks, you’ll discover others that pop up.”
Enlist professional help when needed
“If you need some legal authority, make sure you get a power of attorney. Or if your loved one has so much dementia that they can’t agree to a power of attorney for you, petition for guardianship in a court process. An elder law attorney can help with that. If the elderly person has gotten into tremendous debt, it can be very, very helpful to consult an elder law attorney to discuss how to work through those issues. Financial planners, as well, have an expertise in this particular problem. And some consumer protection bureaus and credit card assistance programs—legitimate ones—can be very helpful to the family caregiver to work through those issues.”
Take care of yourself
“Most financial nonprofits have a caregiver help desk that the family caregiver can access by telephone or email to ask how to deal with some issues. Sometimes it’s nothing more than having someone to talk to, because that stress does build up. You’ve got to talk about it with somebody. You really can’t vent it with the person you’re caring for. It’s going to be counterproductive. Remember to be looking at your own health, especially your own depression. Family caregivers are twice as likely to suffer depression as non-caregivers. This is very much the case when taking on these financial situations. Make sure that you’re getting to your doctors for the help that you need.”
If you feel overwhelmed by your loved one’s financial issues or any other stresses of caregiving, you may also want to consider hiring an in-home health aide to give yourself regular self-care breaks.
For information on available caregiving resources, including where to turn for help in managing your loved one’s finances, go to https://caregiveraction.org/.