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Money and memory loss: Talking with family over the holidays
The season of holiday gatherings is upon us again. This year, you may notice a parent or other family member who doesn’t seem to be doing as well as when you last saw them.
Perhaps you notice bills have piled up, or the house doesn’t seem as organized as usual. You may also notice your loved one does not remember recent conversation as well as they have in the past. Or you may notice evidence of spending on things that does not fit with their values.
Difficulty managing finances can be an early sign of dementia, which is a common problem in elderly people. Dementia is caused by the deterioration of blood or nerve structures of the brain, and is associated with memory problems, personality changes and impaired reasoning. Alzheimer’s is the most well known cause of dementia.
Memory loss is a painful experience for everyone close to the loved one experiencing it, and it might be the last thing you want to talk about over the holidays. But if you’re worried about a friend or family member, having a conversation about the memory loss and its impact is one of the most loving things you can do.
It’s important to note that a person in the early stages of cognitive decline is much more susceptible to financial scams, and to being taken advantage of. Your family member could potentially make very expensive financial mistakes which put their financial security at risk before anyone steps in to help. Because most forms of dementia are progressive, your loved one is likely to decline further and need your help.
So, how do you discuss this sensitive topic? Money, like politics, can be an uncomfortable subject over the family dinner table. It may be best not to bring up your concerns over the Thanksgiving turkey. Instead, find a quieter moment to mention your concern, offer help, and ask how your family member would want to be helped, if needed.
You will likely find it takes more than one conversation for you to understand how you can help, and for your family member to feel comfortable accepting help. The first step should be to determine if you are actually dealing with some form of dementia. Prescription medication, low blood pressure, or other health issues could be causing the symptoms you notice. You might offer to join them at doctor appointments simply to help listen.
It is normal for a person to feel embarrassed about declining abilities, and also very worried about losing independence. Your family member may be very concerned about you or someone else stepping in and telling them what to do. Be sensitive to this concern and make clear that is not what you intend to do. Listen to understand what your loved one wants and how they feel.
It also is normal for any of us to worry about being judged for how we make financial decisions. Try to make clear that you would like to help them continue to do the things they want to do, according to their preferences about how to spend money. Your role is to help your family do what they want, not what you would do instead. Ask where important financial records are kept and offer to join at meetings with a financial adviser to help listen.
Finally, ask where important legal documents, such as a power of attorney, will, medical directive and other legal documents are kept. A person who has dementia will eventually need help managing all their financial affairs, so you want to make sure you have the legal authorities in place so you can help when needed. The legal documents also may need to be updated, and it will be easier on everyone to do this while your family member has capacity to do so.
If you are thinking about your own future needs, over the holidays share with your loved ones your thoughts on how you would like to be helped, if needed. Let your family know where to find your important legal documents and financial records. If you have specific financial and health care preferences, share these so the people who can help you know what you want.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out to medical providers and trusted financial, legal and other counselors for help. Although dealing with dementia is difficult, the road to providing the right help for your loved one will be easier if you have the support you need.