Financial Planning for Alzheimer's

7 Signs Your Parents May Need Help With Money Tasks

Look for these red flags when you spend time with mom and dad over the holidays.

The holidays can be a good time to assess whether aging parents are having memory issues and need help managing their finances -- as well as other tasks. You might not notice many of the early signs of dementia if your only contact with your parents is by phone. But if you spend several days with them over Thanksgiving or Christmas, you should get a better picture of how they're coping.

For example, I live in the same city as my mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease two years ago. Because I see her regularly, I know the extent of her decline and what she no longer is capable of doing. My sister, however, lives several states away from us. Although she talks regularly on the phone to our mom, she didn’t realize how much our mother's mental health had deteriorated until she spent three days with her.

“A lot of times people are in denial when they start to see their parents forgetting,” says Carlo Panaccione, financial planner and president of the Navigation Group, in Redwood Shores, Cal. If your parents talk about the same things again and again on the phone or forget conversations you recently had, don’t write it off -- investigate.

Here are seven things to look for if you visit your parents over the holidays. If you do notice several of them, don't rush to conclude that your parent has dementia and that you need to take over their finances. Wait until after the holidays to share your concerns and to discuss what action should be taken (I'll share tips on how to do this tomorrow).

Once-organized drawers are crammed full of old documents, etc. My mom used to sort all her documents in file folders. But her organizational skills slipped as her memory declined, and she started shoving bank statements and other important papers in random drawers throughout her house.

The mailbox is full of donation requests. It could be a sign that your parents are being taken advantage of if they receive donation requests on a daily basis. Even if they've always been generous, look for solicitations from groups to which they have no connection or from causes that are not important to them.

There's a pile of unpaid bills. Research shows that even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, people have trouble with simple money tasks, such as paying bills. Pay attention to whether mom and dad aren't paying the bills even if they have the financial means to do so.

There are mistakes in their checkbooks. Unless you pull out mom's checkbook and scrutinize while she's sleeping, this could be hard to detect. However, you can pay attention to whether your parent is having trouble writing checks, which is a task seniors with mild Alzheimer's scored poorly on in a recent study. Your parent might not know what the date is or where to fill in the dollar amount.

The refrigerator is filled with expired food. We're all guilty of letting things spoil in the back of the fridge occasionally. But if you notice that your mom or dad is pouring expired milk into his or her cereal and has a refrigerator full of rancid food, there could be a problem. Also check to see if there are multiple packages of the same item, which might mean your parent is forgetting what he already has when he goes shopping.

The house is no longer clean. You should take note if your parents' usually tidy home now has piles of dirty clothes, stacks of papers and dishes in the sink. Or your parent may be keeping the house tidy but not dusting, vacuuming, scrubbing the tub or doing any real cleaning. Difficulty completing a familiar task, such as cleaning, can be a sign of Alzheimer's.

Reminder notes are everywhere. Plenty of us keep to-do lists. But it could be a sign that your parent is having trouble remembering if he has started posting reminders throughout his house and scrawling notes on old bills, envelopes, receipts, scraps of paper or in more than one notepad.

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