Getting older is a trip.
When I was just a little girl, there were two sisters—probably in their 60s—who would walk our neighborhood every evening. I remember watching them walk and chat and laugh together. It seemed like I would never be that old! Then, as my sister and I were chatting and laughing our way through the English countryside this summer, I realized: we’ve become those sisters!
Of course, walking with my sister is one of the enjoyable things about getting older. Not everything about aging is quite so pleasant (what an understatement!). And while physical decline is something every one of us dreads, one of the bigger threats to our health and happiness is mental decline. As a financial advisor, I see the effects of it every day on the lives of my clients. Watching my clients age is hard, not only because it reminds me that I’m no spring chicken myself, but because I know that, inevitably, there will come a time when they won’t be able to manage their finances themselves. The hardest part? If they don’t realize they need the help of a trusted family member or friend—or they aren’t willing to accept that help once it’s offered.
Money has never been an easy thing to talk about. At any age, it takes courage to open that checkbook, investment report, or credit card statement and face reality. For some, it is because of shame—that they should have earned more, saved more, or invested more wisely. Others have a deep-rooted fear of losing all they’ve accumulated—either because someone will come along and take advantage of them, or because they’ll make a monstrously poor decision that will suddenly wash away their wealth. It’s no wonder so many seniors have such a hard time with this important transition.
We’ve all seen it. Sweet Aunt Sally is suddenly defensive when anyone offers help, and angry whenever there’s a hint of suspicion that her capacity is diminishing. Or Grandpa Bill starts angrily accusing everyone of trying to control his every move—and his money—even when it’s clear he needs help to get safely through his day. When the people we love are so easily agitated, we’re often not sufficiently brave or skillful to bring up the elephant in the room.
I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know the complex psychology behind how seniors react and deal with the decline of their cognitive abilities, but I’ve certainly seen it manifest itself into troublesome financial decisions… over and over again. That’s precisely why, as adult children or caring friends, we need to find a way to broach the issue—at the right time and place.
I recently visited my client and good friend Cindy at her home in Sedona. Hours away from her adult children and family, at 84, she relies heavily on her live-in caregiver. From managing her physical care, to picking up her prescriptions, to balancing her checkbook and managing her daily cash flow, her caregiver seems to do it all. I had to raise a red flag. “She’s a great resource for you,” I said to Cindy. “I know that you trust her, but do you have any mechanisms in place to be sure she doesn’t take advantage of you?” Initially, Cindy was defensive. “It took me forever to find someone I could trust. I don’t even want to think that of her.”
I get it. But because Cindy was in a potentially vulnerable situation, I carefully continued. “I have a thought,” I said. “As your financial advisor, I know how you manage your money today. Will you give me written permission to contact your daughter if your finances ever start to look sketchy? Or if you start asking me to make financial transactions that are inconsistent with your plan? That way I’ll know you’re protected.” Cindy’s face immediately eased into a smile of relief. Having a solution seemed to ease her mind and put her on more solid footing.
Aging is a given—for all of us. Cognitive decline is inevitable, and research shows that our skills at financial decision-making are affected early in the aging process. At the same time, our emotions get more reactive and our capacity to handle new challenges declines. It’s a deadly combination. If you’re spending the holidays with your own aging parents, I urge you to be on the lookout for any signs of cognitive decline. Are they confused about basic things? Do they get agitated when they’re offered help or suggestions? If so, here are three next steps to consider when the ”happy and hectic” joys of the holidays are over:
1. Help put an A-team in place. Everyone needs an A-team to assist with critical decisions, and your mom or dad may need one more than ever to manage the transition into older age. Read my blog When all feels lost, it’s time to find your A-team for a detailed list of the seven players I recommend you help find and recruit a strong team right away.
2. Offer to start helping with the finances today. Change is coming. Suggest a Standing (not Springing) Durable Power of Attorney that gives you the legal authority to help manage your parent’s finances right away—without having to go through the legal process of having him or her deemed incapable. See if you can agree to a firm date, perhaps a specific birthday, when you can take over completely. Agreeing to this transition in advance can reduce or even eliminate the fear and anxiety about how and when to hand over the keys to the coffer.
3. Schedule a family meeting. Communication is the key to family bliss—especially when it comes to money. Be sure all your siblings understand your parent’s wishes so no one is accused of manipulating the finances later on. Make a list and cover all the details to be sure the right people have the right information when they need it in the future. Even perfectly prepared legal documents can’t help anyone if they’re not in the right hands.
Over the holidays, take the time to relax and have fun together. But if it seems like Mom or Dad may need help today—or even within the next five years—make your New Year's resolution an important one and begin the conversation. By talking about the changes that are coming, you can help one or both parents prepare for an easier, more secure future.