How can I get my mother, who has dementia, understand she must control her spending habits?

8 answers | Last updated: Nov 12, 2016
Gladlenise asked...

My mom was diagnosed with dementia by a neurologist about a year ago; it's not advanced and she lives alone. I spend several hours each day with her by leaving work early, and that way, I've been able to monitor and assist her with daily needs. I had taken over her monthly bills for her ... she's on fixed income and we do not have much in the way of financial resources. Yesterday, Mom just went down and withdrew about half of the funds for upcoming April bills and went on a spending spree yesterday: I don't know what to do. I've been having that problem with her and trying hard to talk to her about it. I cannot afford to keep covering her on the monthly shortfalls. I don't know what to do. The shut-off notices will be coming, but I'm not going to be able to afford them. Mom does not understand that with only $600, she cannot go on spending sprees and still have enough to cover her monthly expenses. She can still cook for herself and bathe and dress herself, and she does not get lost. But she does get terribly confused and combative at times. Do you have any suggestions on the financial problem I have with her? PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN .... I am open for any ideas. Thanks.

Expert Answers

A social worker and geriatric consultant who specializes in dementia care, Joyce Simard is based in Land O' Lakes, Florida, and in Prague. She is a well-known speaker and has written two books, one focusing on end-of-life care and the other, entitled The Magic Tape Recorder, explaining aging, memory loss, and how children can be helpers to their elders.

If possible get your mother to have her name taken off all of her accounts and put in your name or another trusted person.  Even though she is in the earlier stage of the disease she is not capable of making sound decisions.  Speak with her physician and relate the concerns you have about her decision making as well as explaining in detail about her combative behavior.  I am concerned that she is still living alone yet not making good decisions that could effect her safety.  You also might become involved in a support group where caregivers might be helpful to you. 

Community Answers

Meiho answered...

  I have the same problem with my father, but I live three times zones away. Last month, he withdrew $700 from his checking account and got very combative when his personal banker asked him if everything was OK or if he was having some sort of emergency.  This month, he wrote a $1,000 check to someone I've never heard of. In both cases, he assured me that he would get his money back. Yeah, right. Bye-bye!

 His accounts are in both of our names, but I don't find out about these things until after he's done them. Then, it's too late! Last year, I spent a week at his house undoing all sorts of frauds, schemes, multiple accounts, etc.  I sat down with him and we drew up a financial management plan for what he would do and what I would do to keep him on the straight and narrow. He read it once and filed it. When I ask him to get it out and reread it, he says he doesn't know where it is.

The only thing I can think to do is to set up a separate account in my name, and, at the beginning of each month, withdraw all but a couple of hundred dollars from his account into my account and pay all of his bills out of that account, leaving him only enough for "spending money." He has gone through more "spending money" in a month than I do! He is depleting his savings by hundreds of dollars a month, and cannot tell me what he spends it on. I'm so frustrated that I cry!

In order to become conservator and take total control, you have to get two doctors to write letters with very specific wording that says the person is "by reason of mental deterioration, or other cause, incapacitated and can no longer act rrationally and prudently in his or her own financial best interests." You can then petition a court to make you conservator. If your mother gets Social Security, you have to fill out a form in person and have a meeting at a SS office to become "representative payee" so the SS check can be sent to you. Then you have to report to SS how it's used (it's a simple, online procedure.)

I'm frustrated that, despite me providing HIPAA authorization to my father's doctors, I cannot get them to write this letter. The only way they will do it, I'm afraid, is for me to make an appointment with them for this purpose (that way, they'll get $$!).

When the "expert" above says, "speak with her physician," you'd better make sure that you have HIPAA authorization from your mother than allows your doctor to talk with you. (You can get that as part of a Power of Attorney for Healthcare.)

I'm frustrated that the "expert" answer on this website didn't go into more detail in her answer on this. It's a very complex topic, and may be different in different states. I'm doing as much research as I can before going to be with my father in Michigan in a few weeks.

I joined a caregiver support group and got a couple of good ideas, but unless it's a well-run group, it turns into a depressing complaint session!

If you come up with any additional ideas, please post them here. I wish you well, as I share your frustrations and concerns.

Mindy stein answered...

Although your mother has dementia, she may still have the requisite capacity to execute a Durable Power of Attorney appointing you as her attorney in fact. If she does not have sufficient capacity, you should consider pursuing guardianship on an expedited basis. I recommend that you consult with an elder law attorney in your area.

A fellow caregiver answered...

Another possibility, if social security is all the parent has, is to request Social Security to appoint you as Representative Payee. That way the social security check comes to you, and you have the responsibility to spend it to meet the parent's needs. If there's substantial assets or income, and you don't have a power of attorney in place, then your state's version of guardianship or conservatorship is the only alternative. If the parent still has the legal capacity to execute a power of attorney, then you could consult a lawyer and go that route. But the kind of impulsive spending you describe, coupled with the dementia diagnosis, makes me think that it's too late for a POA.

Scarulli answered...

I appreciate the post by Joyce Simard about having mother's name taken off all her accounts, but am wondering about the tax consequences if I become the account owner of all her funds. Would IRS consider a "gift" to me?

A fellow caregiver answered...

Oh, this is an awful problem, and I completely empathize with you. Some thoughts: 1. The dementia is not going to get better. If your mom could understand the need to control her spending, she wouldn't have dementia. So you're going to have to protect her from herself. 2. You do need legal assistance, either in the form of durable power of attorney, representative payee from social security or (maybe) conservatorship, though that is probably not necessary unless there's a lot of money. 3. There are also just practical approaches -- take the checkbook and credit cards out of her purse, have the bills sent to you or pay them directly from her accounts, etc. 4. Give her what she can afford to have as spending money in small bills in cash so she feels like she has some control. 5. Unless you actually take control of her money and use it for your own purposes, not simply to pay Mom's bills, we've been advised that this does not constitute a gift. And even if it did, the amount would have to exceed $14,000 this year.

Landerslp answered...

I'm not sure if it matters by state, but we couldn't take my mom's name off the account because the social security has to be direct deposit to her account. Even by transferring to another account (my sister had power of attorney) to pay bills, it didn't stop my mom from taking our more money than was in the account, and the bank would charge overdrafts. They said her name was on the account and could withdraw money. They knew because of her direct deposit that they could debit her account for the overdraft. The only way around it was through the court declaring her incompetent, and that was going to be costly.

A fellow caregiver answered...

the doctor wrote a letter saying that our elderly family member was not able to handle money which we took to social security admin. Social security gave us directions to set up representative payee account. We did that and now the social security check is deposited to that account. we then pay all bills and transfer an allowance amount to family member's regular account. She can only spend what she has - if she goes over and has an overdraft then she has less to spend the following month. We do not cover overdrafts. We wrote on her calendar shopping days (Fridays) how much she could spend so she can see how much she has each week. That helped quite a bit. She makes foolish purchases with the money she has but all her bills are paid and we are not on the hook for over spending.