Healthy Aging Column – Talking with and Assisting Elderly Parents with Finances

It can be difficult to determine when a family member needs help with legal or financial matters due to failing health. Adult children often do not want to step in because they are unable to accept their parent’s aging.

Many families do not discuss finances until a crisis occurs, and then it may be too late.   Your parent may be unable to comprehend questions or express their wishes, and family caregivers are overwhelmed with other crisis caregiving tasks. Financial affairs become disorganized and procedures become costly and complicated as a result of not planning ahead.

Planning ahead may not prevent all the problems, but it does allow you to act more effectively and reduces the probability that you’ll need to make intrusive actions. Planning ahead can ensure that choices of elderly family members are known ahead of time and can increase financial management options and reduce disagreements among siblings about "what Mom and Dad want" and how to handle their assets. Outside assistance may reduce some tensions and may be necessary if the family has a pattern of weak communications – such as talking about money or decision-making – or if the family is dominated by a certain gender or has cultural barriers.

Vicki Schmall, retired Oregon Extension gerontologist, wrote in "The Caregiver Helpbook: Powerful Tools for Caregiving": "It’s a tremendous responsibility to make decisions on behalf of someone who cannot take an active part; you may try your best, but wonder if you are making the right decision or if others will approve."

Before making a decision, it is important to:

– understand your motives, attitudes and feelings;

– learn from past experiences and those of others;

– understand your relative’s needs and feelings;

– involve your relative in decisions;

– investigate potential options; and

– recognize your relative’s right to take risks.

Ask yourself why you are bringing up the subject of finances with your relative. If your emotions  or feelings may be distorting a problem, ask another person to help you see the situation objectivity. Reflect on past decisions and consult with others who have similar situations to decide timing of decisions, to prevent repeating mistakes and to consider what the care receiver would do in a similar situation.

Are there reasons to be concerned about the family member’s ability to manage finances?   To understand your relative’s needs, you may need to obtain information from a wide range of

people if you’re a long distance caregiver, including your relatives, health care providers, neighbors, businesses or delivery people. What are their remaining skills, where are the changes, what problems do they create, is the need temporary or permanent, is the change harmful to the person or others?

A care manager, nurse or social worker who specializes in evaluating the needs of elderly individuals can give an objective, professional evaluation if dementia/physical limitations are suspected. Try to understand your relative’s perspective about accepting help or giving up their independence. For most it is traumatic and stress-producing. Avoid making plans "for" someone instead of "with" someone, or a plan won’t have much chance for success. Look for opportunities to include the question, "What you would want if this happens?"

Structured family meetings using a consensus management model or facilitated family meeting can work as tools that bring several members into the discussion. If elderly family members see their ideas incorporated into the plan, they have an invested interest in making a decision work. The tasks within the decision must be within the skill level of the family member. When mental or memory capacity is reduced, the final decision cannot rest on that person. Decisions should not burden others unnecessarily, so set limits on what you and other family members can do.  

Recognize the right your relative has to take risks. Accept that you cannot force or overrule the decision if they are not putting others (spouse, dependents) at risk in the situation. Do not blame yourself or allow others to blame you. Communicating your fears and how you will be affected as a consequence of their choice is all you can do.

Making sound, compassionate decisions is a skill that requires preparation, cooperation and practice. Role-play the discussion and understand what you want to convey. Do not undertake the conversation with the goal of getting the person to do what you want them to do or to save your inheritance. Decisions are risky, but even not deciding is still making a decision.

A goal in advanced planning is to choose the least intrusive intervention that will enable your family member to remain as independent as possible. Legal financial tools available include joint bank accounts, powers of attorney, living trusts/wills, appointment of a representative payee and conservatorship (guardianship of the estate).

The first three tools must be completed by the family member while he or she is still fully capable of making decisions. The tools are revocable, easier to implement and do not affect your relative’s right to self-determination. The last two tools are used when no advance planning is done and your relative is incapacitated. Options become more intrusive, fewer and more complex as they involve the court system. Certain legal options are appropriate for different levels of incompetency, so they change as a person’s condition changes or as the laws change.

Vicki Schmall also shares guidelines for assisting someone with finances with the least amount of tension. Give family members as much control as possible. Involve them and keep them informed. Respect their privacy. Accommodate changes. Keep their money separate from your own. Balance financial statements.

Nancy McCambridge Driskill, Eldercare advisor, shares what elders want family members to know about being supportive when managing life changes. Be patient with elders as they process all the ramifications. Understand they may move back and forth from acceptance to refusal. Have good listening skills. Allow elders to talk about emotional feelings without judgment or criticism. Resist pressuring to find immediate closure. Respect strengths and abilities and the person’s own preferences. Take responsibility for your own feelings and not others, and try to understand other points of view.

Use thoughtful preparation in removing confusing information. It is helpful to get a manageable list from agreed criteria and together narrow the options to make a choice. Clarify roles. An adult child should express clear needs or priorities as they relate to the older relative’s preferences. We all need to be assured to carry on without worries and with reasonable boundaries. Remember to be clear and share and keep the focus on the elderly person most affected.

For more information on financial issues of aging adults, contact the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in your area. Additional articles on Healthy Aging are available by going to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Web site at – select Info Online, Consumer and Family, then Healthy Aging.

By Donna Liess, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences, Weld County