The family dynamics change as parents age, and if your mom or dad suffer from Alzheimer's or dementia, you can expect to reach a point where you must take control of their finances and decisions.
The role reversal can be challenging, and you have to know when it's the right time to step in without damaging their self-esteem.
Adding to the emotional stress is the prospect of wresting control when someone won't easily surrender. Often, individuals who are experiencing cognitive decline don't recognize just how impaired they have become, and a common behavior due to memory loss and confusion, is becoming more suspicious of those around them.
"Especially someone with dementia, it is very difficult because sometimes they don't recognize you even as your daughter or son or husband," says Deanna Lueckenotte, author of "Alzheimer's Days Gone By."
It's important to have the legal documents in place so your parent is prepared to give you or a family member power of attorney when the time comes, and to avoid a court battle over control.
Here are three steps to take that might help reduce the emotional stress of stepping in.
1. Build a network to recognize red flags.
People who see your parents regularly can give you a heads up if they notice changes in their actions, related to sleeping, eating, or tasks such as paying bills.
Their spouse or a friend may alert you that your parent is not sleeping at night and wandering around, for example. Or you may learn that they're treating their friends to lunch too often and may be putting themselves in a bad spot financially.
Lueckenotte says one family recently found out something was wrong with their mom, who lives in a small town, when they got a call from a neighbor saying a warrant was about to be issued because she was writing thousands of dollars in hot checks.
"It's a lot about educating the support system and people around them, too, saying, we're trying to give mom the best quality of life," she says.
The Alzheimer's Disease Center at the University of Alabama-Birmingham identifies these warning signs for declining financial ability:
- Memory lapses: Forgetting to pay bills or paying the same bill multiple times, or difficulty remembering personal property or an estate plan.
- Disorganization: Problems keeping track of bills, statements, taxes, and other documents.
- Math mistakes: Making errors in every day life - such as tipping and making change - and balancing their checkbook.
- Confusion: Difficulty understanding basic terms and concepts and understanding personal estate plans, despite repeated explanations.
- Impaired judgment: Questionable or poor financial decisions.
2. Monitor their comments.
Your parent may start complaining about bills, for example, which could indicate they don't realize they didn't pay it.
"They may say, ‘I don't know what's up with the electric company. I've already paid them and they sent me a notice," Lueckenotte says. "You truly have to listen to what they're saying and take that daughter hat off. It's kind of like you're listening to a teenager and what are they saying to me?"
3. Enter into their reality.
You may think you can't lie to your parent, but Lueckenotte says that if they don't recognize you, it may be more confusing or upsetting to have a discussion about taking control.
You may have to step in on the financial side by paying the bills, but still let them pay the bills, using a duplicate "play" checkbook. You also can set up automatic bill payments that are deducted from their bank account, taking away the option of mailing a check.
"If your mom thinks she's 40 years old and you don't even exist yet, you're not going to be able to rationally talk to her," she says. "Park your reality to the curb and go where they are. If they want to pay their bills, let them pay their bills, but they're really not paying them."
The emotional stress can escalate if your parent can still communicate with you, but think they are handing all of their power over to you.
"There are ways to still give that quality of life but where you are not overwhelming them or making them feel like they are not worth it," Lueckenotte says.