What's in Your Parent's Wallet?

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For those of us who are organizationally challenged, one of the hardest parts about caring for someone else is keeping track of their stuff!

It is hard enough keeping tabs on your own belongings, and then you may have a spouse or child who thinks that you are Vice President in charge of their possessions, too. Adding a care recipient who really cannot keep track of these things, especially if they have some form of dementia, can complicate things even further.

The most difficult situation is when your parent or loved one still believes that they are wholly “independent.” If you try and look in their wallet, jacket, purse or pants pockets, they accuse you of snooping and prying. Then, the next time you are at the doctor’s office, Dad brings out this moth-eaten piece of cardboard that he claims is his Medicare card. You cannot read the name or the number on it, and it’s not even clear what color the thing is.

What’s a caregiver to do? Caregivers who have been managing a loved one’s finances either through a verbal agreement or by using a financial power of attorney probably know what is going on in their wallet or purse, but it is always a good idea to double check their accounts and keep track of their spending. Catching a glimpse of their wallet can tell you a great deal about their spending habits, changes in their credit, and whether or not they are capable of managing their own finances and health care. But if you haven’t been able to get them to involve you in these things, or you haven’t even considered the chaos that may be lurking in their wallet, you can adopt one of two strategies.

There is the straightforward, “Hey, Mom! I’m going to clean out my purse and throw away all these ancient receipts. Shall we do it together? I’ll make a pot of tea and it will be a hen party!”

Then there is the more efficient, effective strategy. Simply wait until your loved one is taking a nap to assess the situation.

Once you have either gotten them on board to do some purging or set them up in their favorite recliner for a mid-afternoon rest, the difficult part begins: sorting through a wad of credit cards, reward cards, coupons, receipts, insurance cards, IDs, checks, and who knows what else.

Medicare Cards

First, if the individual is a member of a Medicare Advantage plan (Part C), their Original Medicare card (red, white and blue card) should be accessible, but you never pull it out! Doing so can cause all kinds of confusion. Simply make sure it is in good shape (legible) and safely tucked away, but leave it hidden. Instead, they will use the Medicare Advantage card provided by the private insurance company they have their policy with. Usually one card is provided for both doctor/hospital visits and prescription drug coverage, but not always. If they have a separate card for prescriptions (Medicare Part D), make sure that it is also in decent condition and accessible.

If your loved one is on Original Medicare (Parts A and B) they do need to have their red, white and blue Medicare card handy. This is true regardless of whether or not they have a supplement plan. If the card resembles the moth-eaten example above or is expired, please know that obtaining a new card is actually quite simple. By going to www.ssa.gov and clicking on “What you can do online,” you can order a replacement card. After it arrives, you should shred the original.

Because optional Part D plans change their prices and formularies so often, you or your care recipient may have a multitude of cards from various prescription plans. Do you know which one is current? By using the Medicare Plan Finder, you can make sure you know what the current plan is and discard/destroy any extra cards that just happen to be hanging around.

The same goes for a Medicare supplement card. Is there only one in there? If they have more than one, make sure you keep and use the correct one and shred or cut up those that are no longer valid. There’s nothing worse than having bills applied to a cancelled plan, thereby delaying payment and causing all kinds of mail to show up on your doorstep.

If you are aware of details regarding your loved one’s Medicare enrollment and certain cards are missing, contact the entity responsible for issuing replacements. This will either be the Medicare Card Replacement section of the Social Security Administration or the private insurance provider that your loved one has purchased coverage from. If you have additional questions about commonly used Medicare terms, dealing with changes in health status or the availability of insurance plans, MyMedicareMatters is a helpful site for caregivers.

Credit Cards

Depending on your loved one’s level of independence and clarity of thought, they may or may not be able to safely possess credit and debit cards. Carrying a bit of cash is one thing, but credit cards enable people to rack up significant amounts of debt. This can be especially dangerous for individuals with cognitive decline or those who have difficultly controlling their spending or making financial decisions.

Credit card companies often target seniors with new sign up materials. If a caregiver is not on top of their finances, monitoring their credit score or carefully sorting through their mail, a senior can easily open up multiple lines of credit and dig themselves into a hole. This not only affects their finances and credit score, but can also have serious implications regarding their ability to pay for medical expenses and long-term care down the road. When sorting through their wallet, make sure they have not obtained any new or unknown credit cards.

Debit Cards

If you have determined that it is no longer wise for a loved one to carry cards due to erratic spending, it may also be time to remove the temptation of a debit or ATM card or check book as well. Switching to carrying only a small amount of cash is a safer way for our loved ones to complete everyday transactions. A debit card can be just as detrimental to their financial situation if they begin withdrawing large sums of money or overdraft their account. Allowing them to keep a bit of cash in their pocket helps to limit the possibility of financial damage, and it also gives them a sense of independence.

ID Cards and Driver's Licenses

If your loved one is still (safely!) driving, make sure that their driver's license is not expired and that all information is current. This is especially important if your loved one has moved since they last renewed their license, whether it was to a different state or only across town. For those seniors who no longer drive, it is still important for them to have some form of official identification. A basic ID card can be obtained at the DMV or online in many states. Many changes can be easily changed online as well.

Rewards, Loyalty and Membership Cards

Simplifying daily life for an aging loved one can come in many forms. When it comes to wallet space, clearing out accumulated coupons, rewards and loyalty cards that are either no longer used or expired can free up a lot of space and minimize confusion. Most people tend to hang on to these types of things in the hope that they will score something for free or receive a discount on a purchase. Being thrifty isn’t necessarily a bad thing! But if your loved one no longer frequents that frozen yogurt shop on the other side of town or their pet passed away a year ago, then holding onto cards for earning a free cup of yogurt or a 10% discount on pet food at the local supply store is pretty pointless.

The same goes for membership cards, but don’t forget to cancel the membership before disposing of them! Warehouse clubs and other stores that offer subscriptions or paid memberships often bill members automatically each month or year. For example, if your loved one doesn’t shop at Costco anymore or no longer drives/owns a car, then their Costco and AAA Memberships should be canceled and the cards destroyed. This will not only streamline their wallet, but it will save them some money as well.

Receipts

For a caregiver, receipts can be an endless annoyance, but they play a crucial role in budgeting for yourself and your loved one. Many family members end up paying for medications, food, equipment and personal care items with their own money, but without keeping detailed records of these expenses, it eliminates the likelihood of being reimbursed at a later date, whether privately or through a program like cash and counselling. The same goes for filing insurance claims and managing a parent’s money as a financial power of attorney. What may seem like outdated, insignificant wads of paper could be the deciding factor when it comes to repayment, reimbursement, Medicaid eligibility or tax deductions. Establishing some sort of system depending on your arrangement with you loved one and their financial and medical situation will help you avoid mistakes in this area.

Sorting through bills, figuring out cards and policies, cancelling memberships, finding the right phone numbers, and managing your money and another's can be overwhelming. The reality of the life of the caregiver is that all the details can make your head spin you if you don’t take a few minutes to organize all the “stuff” involved on a regular basis. Before calling to address any of these issues, make sure that you have the proper authorizations necesary for the bank, credit card companies, Medicare, and the SSA to speak with you candidly.

Margaret Johnson Ware

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Margaret Johnson Ware, MBA, has more than 15 years of experience assisting individuals in navigating issues regarding health insurance, family caregiver support and access to health services. She is an independent consultant to individuals, families and aging and health organizations, including MyMedicareMatters.org.

Visit: My Medicare Matters

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3 Comments

Good advice. I am 85, living in an independent living facility that is not near my children. As a result of this article I will mail my older son copies of all my relevant cards so he will have a record of them in addition to the other pertinent info I have given him.
Margaret, I had to chuckle about the moth-eaten Medicare card. My Dad had one of those in his wallet along with 4 xerox copies of the card. I was able to get my Dad a brand new Medicare card so he was happy to get that :)

It is interesting to see what else one carries in their wallet. It was fun looking at photos of my Dad back when he was 20 something [he's now 93], my Mom's photo, and my high school photo. Dad carries one credit card and so far he is very good about using it.

Then the misc shopper type discount cards, oh well, I kept those in the wallet because the leather was so stretched out that if there wasn't enough cards in the slots the cards would fall out. I wasn't about to buy Dad a new wallet, as his old one was nicely bent so it was comfortable when he sat on it :)

As for managing an elder's finances, large 3-ring binders were my friend. The large green binder was for the bank.... the large blue binders were for stocks... the orange binder was for the senior living facility as their main flyer colors were orange... you get my drift. It makes finding paperwork so easy.
Having their, and your Medicare Card laminated is a good idea too, as the do tend to degrade, especially men, who sit on their wallets continuously! You can get this done at Kinkos, or your nearby copymart!