“Mom! Where do all these packages keep coming from?!”

“Dad, what are all these new charges on your credit card?”

As our loved ones age, their shopping habits may escalate, causing family caregivers a great deal of grief. Discussing finances is a difficult task but trying to actively monitor and limit a spouse or parent’s spending is an entirely different matter.

Why Seniors Feel Compelled to Shop

There are several possible reasons that might explain an elder’s need to buy, buy, buy. Some seniors have had shopaholic tendencies their whole lives. Just because a person gets older and has less discretionary income doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically adjust such a deeply ingrained behavior. In fact, even seniors who weren’t big shoppers previously may ramp up their spending in an attempt to quell feelings of depression, boredom and/or loneliness.

As friends, family and abilities dwindle, retail therapy can give many people a short-lived mood boost. Online ordering, television shopping channels and mail-order catalogs make it so that seniors don’t even have to leave their homes to do some damage on their credit and debit cards. Unfortunately, this pastime comes at a cost and can become addictive.

In severe cases, hoarding can accompany reckless spending. Again, these can be long-standing personality traits or new and unusual behaviors for seniors. Studies have shown that symptoms of compulsive hoarding typically emerge before age 20, however they may wane and intensify throughout a person’s life. Limited mobility and other age-related health issues can make it harder for an older hoarder to manage their behavior and hide the consequences. If a senior who has previously been responsible with their money and kept their home free of clutter suddenly begins spending frivolously and accumulating purchases, it may indicate a mental health issue, such as depression and/or cognitive decline.

In many instances, dementia plays a role in seniors’ excessive shopping. Mom may have had a genuine need for a new set of sheets but lapses in memory might cause her to repeat the order several times without realizing it. Impaired judgement and diminishing comprehension associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia can also lead to unusual impulse purchases and botched order forms. Before you know it, Dad may have accidentally ordered 10 tool sets instead of one, amounting to hundreds of dollars.

Dementia patients eventually lose the ability to manage their finances responsibly and understand the consequences of their spending. If no family members or friends are aware of a senior’s shopping habits, their financial situation can rapidly spin out of control, possibly decimating their savings and racking up significant debt.

Some Businesses Exploit Seniors’ Weaknesses

To make matters worse, companies understand that older consumers tend to think of shopping as a pastime. They also know that seniors may not be as savvy when comparing prices and terms online and over the phone. For example, some businesses use predatory tactics to sell magazine subscriptions with ridiculous terms to seniors. My mother fell into one of these traps. She loved her magazines and had been receiving several publications since I was a child. As she aged, she grew to enjoy them even more. When a nice lady from a subscription company called one day with an “amazing offer,” Mom was hooked. She thought she’d landed a cracking-good deal. However, she would have had to live until at least 115 years old to enjoy the entirety of the subscription she had purchased.

Mom had no idea that she’d signed up for approximately $1,000 worth of magazines. Fortunately, I was able to bully the company into canceling the order and crediting the full amount back to her card. That was the day we decided she shouldn’t have access to her credit cards anymore. I promised her she would have all the magazines she wanted for as long as she wanted, and I delivered on that. We passed the barely read copies on to other residents at her nursing home, and I brought her the new ones as they arrived.

When Should Caregivers Step in to Help Manage a Senior’s Finances?

I was lucky with that episode. Mom was still competent enough to realize that she had made a mistake and understand how vulnerable she was. Nonetheless, she still felt a keen loss of power when she gave up her credit cards. I believe that this is one of the driving forces behind the shopping habits of many elders. The ability to handle one’s own money is a hallmark of maturity and power. If advancing age or disease takes away some of a senior’s independence, they are apt to try to make up for this loss in another areas. Like driving, spending is one of those actions that can help them reclaim that sense of autonomy. It can also function like a drug to cover up the fear and insecurity surrounding those losses.

Adult children trying to curb their parents’ spending habits can find it hard going. Mom and Dad will insist there is no problem. It’s their money and they can spend it as they choose. They are absolutely right. But, when bills go unpaid while more packages arrive daily at their home, you do get worried. If they don’t remember placing these orders, but the charges are appearing on their accounts, you worry even more. Is someone else using their card fraudulently, or are they intentionally making purchases and then forgetting all about them?

When you try to monitor their spending, they may rebel and level painful accusations. They may jump to the conclusion that you’re trying to keep them from spending money on themselves because, “You just want to inherit more after I’m gone!” You feel hurt. All you are trying to do is protect them and their future.

As with so many issues that crop up with seniors, sometimes it’s best to bring in a third party to help handle this challenge. A good place to start is making an appointment with your loved one’s doctor for a cognitive assessment and evaluation of instrumental activities of daily living. If they aren’t comfortable with you coming into the appointment with them, then write a detailed note about any changes in memory, behavior, judgement and mood that you have noticed. Be sure the doctor receives it and has time to read it before the appointment. Dementia may not be the culprit, but the doctor can help rule out cognitive decline and screen for other possible causes like depression.

If it turns out that a senior is still competent and is just terrible when it comes to managing their money, then there is little you can do. A second opinion may be a good idea if you strongly suspect something is medically wrong with them. Otherwise, you may need to ask a friend, spiritual leader or financial advisor to talk with your loved one and help them set and follow a realistic budget. They may be more open to discussing their finances with someone they respect and feel comfortable talking with about personal matters. More importantly, they may actually listen to what this person recommends.

Of course, if a doctor diagnoses dementia, you already have proof that increased help and supervision are necessary. Bringing in a friend or financial advisor can help drive the point home, but, depending on the extent of a senior’s cognitive decline, it may not be possible to reason with them. Regardless, a diagnosis alone won’t stop the spending. Hopefully, all legal preparations are in place, including a financial power of attorney (POA), which will allow a trustworthy representative to assume control of the senior’s finances. If the senior rejects help, has been deemed incompetent and has not prepared any legal documentation, then seeking guardianship may be a family caregiver’s only hope for rectifying their loved one’s financial situation.