How to Approach Aging Parents’ Mental Decline


It’s hard to admit any signs of aging: losing your keys, forgetting names, getting lost going to  your favorite restaurant.

As the baby boomer population ages, they’re learning how to deal with mental aging issues, and unrecognized or untreated mental disorders can have both personal and financial effects.

The decline of a parent's health or mental well being requires adult children or family members to become more involved in decisions about a parent's life. But it can be difficult to approach health issues because many times aging parents are hesitant to admit any problems or seek out assistance.

The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) recently released a survey that shows 7 in 10 U.S. adults claim to have major barriers that are preventing their families from openly communicating about who will make financial decisions on behalf of their aging family member.

To gain a little more insight into the findings of the study, I spoke with Paul Golden, spokesperson for NEFE as to how we can better deal with mental aging issues. Here’s what he had to say:

Boomer: What are some of the signs of diminished capacity in financial decision making that family members should be looking for with aging parents?

Golden: The warning signs can take on many forms. If a family member notices their parent or other aging family member begin having trouble paying bills, having difficulty calculating simple math problems, making irrational purchases, or even being victimized by fraud, these may be an indication that something serious is happening. A NEFE survey finds that among those who have themselves or those who have family members that have experienced cognitive decline"

• 47% have had trouble with bills, paying them late or not at all;

• 36% have had difficulty calculating simple math problems;

• 35%have made irrational purchases;

• 21% percent have depleted their savings accounts.

Boomer: When baby boomers begin facing cognitive decline issues, what can family members do to assist them?

Golden: Before cognitive decline issues start to show, hopefully a family can come together and clear the hurdles that limit communication to evaluate what needs to be done now and in the future.

The best way to start is by doing a financial inventory. Consolidate accounts into as few as possible so it is easier to track and manage transactions. Also make sure that a will and financial power of attorney are current. Family members who are overseeing an aging parent’s finances should create a calendar of bills to be paid each month, checking in to ensure that bills are being paid on time and for the correct amounts.

Accounts of aging parents also should be monitored to check for any unusual activity and annual credit checks should be done to safeguard against identity theft.

Boomer: What major barriers prevent families from communicating openly as to who will make financial decisions when an aging family member becomes unable to do so for themselves?

Golden: It isn’t uncommon for there to be defensiveness, denial, embarrassment and sibling rivalry when entering into a dialogue between adult children and a parent concerning their finances. NEFE found that while 86% of those surveyed indicate they would trust a family member to make financial decisions if they are unable to, the majority of people say there are family dynamics that are getting in the way of making this happen. Seven in 10 say major barriers are preventing their families from openly communicating about who will make financial decisions on behalf of an aging family member if they become unable to.

Boomer: Should family members involve their aging parent in the process of developing a financial plan for them?

Golden: Family members should definitely involve the aging parent in the process of developing a plan where you are assisting them with their finances. This is "their" plan and you are following their wishes. Approach the family member experiencing cognitive decline in a positive and supportive way to let them know that you are there to offer your help and support. Be sensitive to their point of view. They have worked hard over a lifetime to accumulate their resources. The aging family member may be apprehensive about relinquishing control of their finances.

Boomer: What are some tips for dividing caregiving duties with family members?

Golden: Have an honest and open discussion with siblings about a parent’s cognitive decline, what needs to be done, and what caregiving roles each family member wishes to play. Set up a schedule for each sibling. Keep family members who do not live nearby updated with weekly emails or phone calls. Invite all siblings who wish to take on some responsibility to do so.