As family therapists, including family therapy for aging parents, we’ve witnessed the emotional impact on families when an older parent with dementia or other cognitive difficulties struggles to maintain their own finances. Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist appeared on NPR to explain what money issues can mean emotionally for an older parent and the family as a whole.
The segment “An older person’s money management errors may be a sign of some sort of dementia,” aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, begins with several personal stories from families who have been affected by an older family member’s money issues. Matt follows these accounts by observing how money can mean a whole range of things, particularly for adults as they age. “What we discover in being close to people who are struggling with something like dementia,” he says, “is the ways that money can represent stability, control, power, autonomy, and safety.”
While not in the segment, Matt encourages families in which a parent can no longer control their own finances to carve out time to discuss it. This is not just a practical conversation, but an emotional one. As such, name emotions that come up rather than hide or ignore them. Money has an emotional history not just for the person who needs help making financial decisions, but for the person raising the issue. For example, an adult sibling may have old grievances or guilt related to money with their parent or other siblings. Even though the conversation might seem intimidating, transparency here is particularly important.
It can be helpful to team up with other family members before approaching a parent. Start by assessing your resources: Who in the family is in agreement that actions need to be taken? How can you organize them to take on some of the labor in building a coalition? People have different histories and may have grievances with one another that require sensitivity. In most cases, coming from a place of curiosity is best. Ask, “How are you feeling about Mom getting older and needing us to consider taking a bigger role in keeping her safe financially? What’s hard for you about that?” This isn’t to say all grievances will be resolved (or are relevant), but having a space to air them can help everyone align with the cause. Doing some preliminary education on the concern about dementia and finances can also be useful by, for instance, sharing this very NPR clip.
Sometimes dementia is severe in such a way that the parent you’re working to protect may simply not be able to trust you and yet, the imperative to protect is so strong that it needs to happen anyway. In these situations, this may need to be done with the authority of attorneys and/or courts. This will be painful but isn’t a failure. It’s better to accept that tough reality than to deny it and leave a vulnerable individual unprotected.