Is My Elderly Parent a Shopaholic?

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"Mom! Where are all these packages coming from?" Some caregivers are pulling out their hair over Mom or Dad's shopaholic habits.

What do you do when your mother calls that shopping network 800 number and orders jewelry she has no use for, and worse yet can't afford? What do you do when she uses her limited computer skills to shop online, charging up the credit cards with who knows what? How do you step in when the money isn't yours and Dad insists he has a right to do as he pleases?

It used to be hard enough when the biggest problems were charity phone calls and the magazine companies. At least those weren't scams. My mother loved her magazines and had been taking a number of them since I was a child. As she aged, she enjoyed them even more. When a nice lady called from on of the all-in-one magazine order places with this amazing offer, Mom was hooked. She thought she'd made a cracking-good deal. I guess she had, if she lived to be 115 years old and could enjoy the magazines that long.

She had no idea that she'd signed up for approximately $1000 worth of magazines. Fortunately, I was able to bully the company into canceling the order and crediting the full amount back to Mom's card. That was the day we decided that she maybe shouldn't have credit cards anymore. I promised her she would have any and all of the magazines she wanted for as long as she wanted. And she did. We passed the barely read copies on to others at the nursing home after her basket got so full of back issues there wasn't room for more, and I brought the new ones as they came.

I was lucky with that episode. Mom was still capable enough to see, after she had made that disastrous $1000 magazine order, that she was vulnerable. But she felt the loss of power when she gave up her cards, which I believe is behind some of the shopping habits of many elders. The ability to handle one's own money is about adulthood and power. If age or disease takes away some of your independence in other areas, a person is apt to try to make up for this loss in another way. Spending is one of those ways. Spending can help a person feel powerful. Spending also can be like a drug to cover up the fear underneath those losses.

Adult children trying to curb their parents' spending habits can find it hard going. The parents will insist there is no problem. It's their money and they can spend it as they choose. Well, yes, they have that right. But when you see your dad can't pay the water and electric bill because he whipped out his credit card to buy another new set of golf clubs which he can no longer swing, you do get worried. When packages arrive daily at your parents' home and they swear its stuff they never ordered, yet the charges are on their cards, you worry more. Is someone else using their card fraudulently or are they buying and forgetting?

What can Caregivers Do if Elderly Parents Become Shopaholics?

You try to monitor their spending and they throw fits. They rightly tell you it's their money. When they accuse you of trying to keep them from spending money on themselves because "you just want to inherit more," you feel stung. All you are trying to do is protect them.

As with so many tricky areas with aging parents, sometimes a third party is best brought in. Even this approach can get you in trouble. However, if your parents' finances are off and they are spending money on things you know they would never have bought before, or if they are not paying necessary bills while they are throwing away money on TV offers or Internet shopping, there is a genuine problem. It's possible they may be in an early stage of dementia. If it's not dementia, it could be a form of rebellion against their losses, real or perceived, as mentioned above. Either way, it's a problem and you are stuck with trying to find a resolution.

Of course, if a doctor diagnoses dementia, you already have third-party proof that your parent needs some help. However, that doesn't necessarily stop the spending. No matter what the cause, a financial counselor may be able to tactfully help by explaining to your parents better ways of handling their money. Perhaps this person can entice the parent to save rather than spend by dangling a reward before them.

The key is this person, be it a financial professional, a friend, or a spiritual leader, is not the adult child. This person will not benefit from anything the parent doesn't spend, so the parents' suspicions in that area can be softened. Also, since elders understandably get sick of being told by their adult children how to handle their lives, a third party takes away this barb as well. There's a better chance the elder's may listen.

If worse comes to worse, and they are going down the tubes financially but refuse help from you or a competent third party, you may have to seek a court ordered conservatorship over their money. How far are you willing to take this? That is the real question. A lot is determined by the severity of the problem.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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9 Comments

oh my goodness, we thought it was just happening to us! It's such a hard issue to handle. We are taught to respect our parents so the emotional turmoil of this problem is upsetting and exhausting. We feel our mother has turned into our new teenager. Trying to sort her dept is a nightmare at this time. I'm almost glad to hear it s happening to others
Excellent article with good advice. Would like to see you include how to manage your spouse when he/she spends while you have to cover the actual costs of living. Hard to believe the much repeated purchases of the same items not needed or wanted. Thanks for the advice.
My mother keeps on buying things from a catalogue; and only wears them say once or twice. Then they just hoard her bedroom. She didn't the clothes.
Leading up to every Christmas she bombarded by charities; calenders, lotteries, stickers etc. She has too much pity on them and throws her money away. She has a form of dementia