Financial problems can easily spiral out of control if older adults don't tackle them quickly. And if they're tight-lipped about their finances or fearful of losing control over their money, they may be less likely to confide in a caregiver or family member about any money difficulties they may be experiencing -- giving problems time to snowball.
Money management problems can also be an early sign of memory loss. If these problems are new, be sure to check in with a doctor.
Even if you're not privy to the details of their finances, if you pay attention you'll see early indications that problems are brewing. Here are some of the warning signs that their finances are off track:
1. Mail is piling up unopened in their house.
Take a look around the kitchen or mail area. Are there stacks of unsorted mail? What about piles of statements from mortgage or credit card companies, utilities, notices from the Internal Revenue Service, or other unopened envelopes that appear to be bills?
As people get older, the monthly chores of paying bills may become mentally or physically overwhelming, especially if money is tight because they're on a fixed income or if they're slowing down cognitively. Stacks of unopened mail -- especially bills -- can be an important warning sign that something is amiss.
2. They seem to be mishandling money or forgetful about cash.
When you're out to eat, does the person you're caring for open his wallet, only to be surprised that he doesn't have enough money to pay for something? Do you see undeposited checks or unopened mail from pension funds, insurance companies, or Social Security hiding in piles of paperwork or lost amid household clutter?
These can both be early signs that he isn't paying close attention to his money situation. He may be physically unable to make the daily or weekly trips to the ATM or bank branch to deposit checks and take out cash, or he may be getting increasingly forgetful about his day-to-day financial dealings.
3. Creditors are showing up in the phone logs.
The phone offers a quick and easy way to check to see whether creditors are contacting -- or harassing -- the person in your care. Check the caller ID logs and keep track of any increase in phone calls from new numbers that may be bill collectors. You may also notice repeated phone calls from credit card companies or household help, such as gardeners or housecleaners looking for back wages.
4. The house is filling with new purchases, or those in your care have acquired expensive new hobbies.
Take a look around the house. Does it look like they've been doing heavy-duty damage to their credit cards? Do you see lots of new and expensive purchases around the house, like furniture, art, knickknacks, or fancy appliances such as flat-screen TVs? Or maybe they've been traveling more than usual or they've taken up some other costly new habit, like weekly golf outings to the most expensive course in town.
No one begrudges older adults the right to an occasional splurge -- especially if they're retired and finally relaxing after years of hard work. But a sudden uptick in purchases or expenses can be a sign of impaired judgment, or of memory loss -- which can be an early sign of dementia.
5. They're gambling more often or for higher stakes than usual.
Many people -- especially older adults -- enjoy organized trips to local casinos or weekly bingo or bridge games at the senior center. Gambling cruises and bus trips are a popular weekend excursion for many groups, and there's no reason to panic over the first train ride to Reno, bus to the Jersey shore, or gambling cruise to the Bahamas. But if these activities increase significantly over time, you have to face the possibility that they may have a gambling problem -- and if that's the case, gambling-related expenses could easily blow up in their faces at any time.
6. You see or hear evidence that they're falling victim to financial scams.
Take another look at the mail pile and caller ID logs. Do you see many junk-mail catalogs from unfamiliar companies, sweepstakes mailings, solicitations for investment schemes, or vacation home offers? What about frequent or repeated phone calls from unfamiliar numbers? Or has someone you're caring for excitedly told you about a surefire, can't-miss investment scheme he heard about from a neighbor?
Older adults can be especially vulnerable to scam artists and shady telemarketers -- or even well-meaning friends who have already fallen prey to this kind of scheme -- not only because they often have significant assets but also because they may be lonely or may welcome the attention. Those older adults who are starting to have memory problems are especially vulnerable to scams.
7. They're complaining about not having enough money.
Does the subject of money come up in conversation more than it used to? Do they make more passing references to the high costs of living expenses like gas, electricity, and groceries? You may also see more subtle signs that money is tight -- they may decline invitations to go out to eat with friends because of the cost, make fewer car trips because of high gas prices, and skip home fixes like house painting and furnace or appliance repairs. All of these can be signs that their expenses are too much for them to deal with on their own.
8. They seem physically unable to complete daily tasks like banking and bill paying.
Tasks that once seemed mundane can become unmanageable if their physical or mental state is deteriorating. The weekly trip to the ATM may be no big deal to you, but if they have vision problems that prevent them from driving or health issues that keep them from long walks, it may be hard for them to make it to the bank on a regular basis.
Likewise, paying bills by mail can become burdensome if arthritis makes writing checks and addressing envelopes painful. Pay attention to their general health, and you'll likely be able to keep tabs on their financial health as well.