Barbara’s mother called her in a panic. The power had been shut off.  Barbara contacted the electric company and learned that her elderly mother had not paid her bills in several months. Barbara, who lives in another state, made an emergency trip to sort out her mother’s affairs.

She learned that other utilities had not been paid and last year’s tax returns had not been filed. Barbara was unaware that her mother’s ability to manage her finances had deteriorated.

Some elders reach a point where they need help managing their financial affairs. Fearing a one-way ticket to the nursing home or an invasion of privacy, many do not ask for help. Left unnoticed and unattended, however, financial problems can develop and quickly spiral out of control.

Here are some clues Mom and Dad may need help:

  • Repeated statements by the parents that they do not receive any mail, especially bank statements or bills.
  • Talk of new close friends and “can’t fail investments.”
  • Out-of-character purchases and new expensive hobbies, regardless of whether your parents have the resources to pay for them.
  • The same questions asked repeatedly, especially when you answered it a few minutes ago.
  • Piles of mail scattered around the house or mail in unusual places – such as stuffed into books or kitchen drawers.
  • Unopened checks, bills, statements, correspondence from insurance companies, and other financial mail.
  • A checkbook register with repeated or missing check numbers, incorrect balances, missing deposits, a lack of regular payments to utility companies, numerous and repetitive charitable donations and checks written to individuals and organizations you don’t recognize. (Respect your parents privacy and ask for their permission to look at their checkbook register before you do. If you are unfamiliar with a payee, ask for what the payment was made. You will want to rule out whether someone is taking advantage of them.)
  • Arthritic hands, failing eyesight, and loss of hearing can contribute to the challenges of paying bills, maintaining the checkbook or using the telephone.
  • Difficulty walking or no longer driving can make it difficult, if not impossible, for your parents to get to the bank, post office, accountant and other places to conduct personal business.

What can you do if you believe your parents need help managing their finances?

Begin with open communication. Express your concerns and why you have them. It is important to remember many parents do not like to discuss their financial affairs with others, especially their adult children. The goal is to help them be as independent as possible, and not to take control of their money.

Some seniors are quite willing and relieved to have a family member take over their finances while others are not. Legally, you cannot force your parents to accept help unless they are found incompetent by a court of law.

If you believe that your parents need help and they refuse, seek the support of a professional. Sometimes people will respond more favorably if their attorney, accountant, or investment advisor, whom they know and trust, tells them to accept help. Their physician may recommend an evaluation. Aging Life Care professionals (formerly Geriatric Care Managers) can assess your parents’ situation and determine what type of assistance they need.

In Barbara’s case, she was able to arrange for a daily money manager to help her mother with mail, bill payments and money management. Barbara, who was her mother’s agent by power of attorney, took over working with her mother’s investment advisor. With these supports, her mother was able to remain living independently in her home.

Talking to parents about their money is difficult for most people. It is essential to intervene, however, when elder parents are losing the ability to manage their finances. When an individual has dementia, the ability to handle financial affairs is one of the first skill sets to deteriorate.

However, most people are able to remain living independently longer when they receive help with their money affairs. By paying attention to clues, you will know when it’s time to step in.


Robyn Young is the owner of Money Care, LLCin Williston, Vermont. A version of this blog post first appeared on the Money Careblog.