As the U.S. population gets older, more people, particularly baby boomers, are confronting a dilemma. As parents age, their ability to manage their own finances may decline. That can make it more likely that they may neglect the life savings they’ve worked so hard to accumulate or make costly mistakes with them. Even worse, they’re more likely to fall victim to one of the fraudulent schemes that frequently target seniors. “Financial Fraud and Fraud Susceptibility in the United States,” a September 2013 report prepared for the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, found that seniors were 34% more likely to lose money to fraudsters than were those in their 40s.
And yet many seniors, especially those who have always been independent and/or money-savvy, may be reluctant to accept advice or help from their children, or even discuss living expenses, health care plans, investments, or general estate planning. Sadly, postponing that discussion can increase the difficulty of tackling whatever problems may eventually arise.
What’s behind parental reluctance?
Suggesting that parents might benefit from assistance, either from their children or a professional, may remind them of their own mortality. People are living longer; if they’re still active and involved, they may have difficulty accepting that their current good health and financial comfort may not always continue.
Also, some seniors may be reluctant to discuss finances because it can reinforce a sense of loss; this could be especially true if they can no longer drive or participate in activities they enjoy. Admitting that they need help with financial issues may make them feel as though one more area is no longer under their control. If this is the case, they might respond to the idea that addressing important issues now–planning for ill health or an incapacity–could give them greater decision-making power over their quality of life later.
Parents also may be uncomfortable discussing finances with only one child, preferring to involve all siblings. In this case, you may need to either try to reach a consensus about which child is best equipped to help, or divide responsibilities among siblings. For example, one child might assist with bill-paying and day-to-day expenses while another reviews investments or handles health insurance, Medicare, and Social Security.
In some cases, parents may respond to the idea that taking action sooner rather than later can help prevent the loss of much of their hard-earned savings to taxes or scams. If they’re uncomfortable discussing finances with you, you could suggest working with a third party who can review their situation and make recommendations that could then be discussed jointly.
When to offer help
Here are some signs that a parent might need some assistance: confusion about whether direct-mail offers are advertising or bills; failing to pay bills or file documents properly, especially if someone has always been highly organized; complaints about being unable to make ends meet; talking about the merits of certain investments, especially unfamiliar ones and especially if a parent hadn’t previously exhibited much interest in investing; unusual behavior, such as making unexpected large purchases or spending a lot of time gambling.
Be sure to rule out other physical problems, such as an infection or difficulties with vision or hearing, before assuming that mental confusion is automatically a sign of dementia.
A start is better than nothing
If parents are reluctant to discuss specific figures, try to make sure that key information, including online account information and passwords, is on paper, and that someone else knows the location of those items and will be able to access them if necessary.
You might start providing assistance in stages. Offer to review checking account statements and/or credit card bills to ensure they’re not paying for services they want to cancel or didn’t request; this may give you insight into the overall state of their finances. Because seniors may be more willing to discuss issues such as health insurance and preferences regarding long-term care or end-of-life decisions before other topics, building trust in these areas could increase comfort levels on both sides with other matters.
If a trust has been set up, a trustee might be the logical person to handle finances, since he or she may eventually have to deal with trust-related issues anyway. The same is true for someone who has been granted a durable power of attorney, even if he or she doesn’t yet have full responsibility for managing finances. And in a worst-case scenario, children can petition a probate court to name a conservator or guardian. Whatever approach you take, one of the key challenges of this process is to respect a parent’s dignity while protecting his or her ongoing well-being.
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