Managing Money and Dementia

When Irene’s daughter visits her mother, she sees stacks of mail on top of the refrigerator. There are countless pieces of junk mail mixed in with utility bills and a past due credit card bill.  “It’s all so confusing”, complains Irene, “I don’t even know what to do with it all.”Then there's Arthur, who always donated to his church and occasionally to local charities, but his wife is alarmed and dismayed when she learns he has withdrawn almost all of their savings and sent large checks to numerous organizations she never heard of.  

Irene and Arthur may have already received a dementia diagnosis or this may be one of the first signs their family members notice.   Irene and Arthur's families want to help but aren't sure what to do.   If the person you’re caring for has trouble walking you can get them a cane or a walker.   But what if they need assistance with daily finances?  How can you tell and how can you help them?  

Here are a few signs that may indicate a problem:

  • Confusion and frustration when paying bills
  • Mail piles up unopened and/or tucked into drawers
  • Person with dementia has difficulty distinguishing important mail from junk mail
  • Bills are paid twice or paid late
  • Checking account has frequent overdrafts
  • Credit cards have late fees and interest 
  • Increase in charitable giving (either dollar amounts or number of donees) 
  • Problems balancing the checkbook when they've always been able to do it before

If they are struggling with daily finances, what is the next step?  

Depending on the type and severity of dementia, the person with dementia may still be able to take part in managing personal finances as long as they have supervision and safeguards in place.

To help keep track of the mail, it’s a good idea to designate one special box or basket and ask that all of the mail be put there as soon as it is received (with the exception of personal cards and letters).   If the person with dementia keeps going back to the box to go through the mail or worries about it, put a cover on the box with a slit for them to slide the mail through because if it’s not visible they may not worry as much about it.  Every two weeks or so, a caregiver can sit with them as they go through the mail and pay bills.  When possible,  set up bills to be automatically drafted from the checking account.  

The caregiver who assists with personal finances can be a family member, accountant, or daily money manager, but should always be thoroughly vetted and accountable to a third party.  If the dementia becomes severe enough, the finances will eventually need to be taken over by a power-of-attorney or court-appointed conservator.  It's important to keep persons with dementia fiscally safe as well as physically safe.