Why has my mother-in-law become so irresponsible with her money since her stroke?

6 answers | Last updated: Nov 16, 2010
A fellow caregiver asked...

My husband's mother had a stroke last year. Physically, she's doing really well, but she's become very irresponsible, especially with her finances. She'll focus on a single thing, like wanting a new TV, and no one can talk her out of it even though she can't afford it. She used to be very careful with her money. What's going on? And what can we do to keep her from wasting all her money on ridiculous things?

Expert Answers

Nerissa Ko is an assistant professor of neurology and an assistant director of the Neurovascular Service at the University of California in San Francisco. She specializes in the care of patients with strokes and vascular diseases of the brain.

This isn't an unusual complaint, and it's one of the most challenging for families and caregivers. Your mother-in-law's stroke probably caused damage to the right side, or nondominant side, of the brain or the frontal lobes of the brain. People who've had this type of damage may be physically fine, but they may behave more irrationally, be emotionally unstable, aggressive, or quick to anger, or just be quite impulsive and exhibit poor judgment.

This type of damage is as severe as having physical paralysis and weakness, but the treatments are different and require behavioral modifications. You don't necessarily have to confine your mother-in-law and take away all her independence, but you'll need to limit her access to funds and supervise her spending. This can be one of the hardest things for caregivers. It might be as simple as taking away credit cards and bank cards and leaving her with a cash allowance. Or you may have to be more severe and have your mother-in-law declared incompetent to handle her finances, which requires a neuropsychiatric evaluation and documentation, and may also require that you or a member of your family establish a conservatorship. This step can cause a lot of conflict, but it might be necessary to protect your mother-in-law from herself.

It's important to acknowledge that your mother-in-law's behavior is truly a stroke-related symptom, and may improve with time. Even if you don't need to have her declared incompetent, it might be helpful to talk to a behavioral neurologist or psychiatrist. Your mother-in-law may be suffering from treatable anxiety or depression. And a psychiatrist may be able to help your family learn how to manage this "new" person in your household.

Community Answers

Ca-claire answered...

Nearly 3 years ago, my husband had a severe stroke at 58 years old.  Since that time, the physical aftereffects are nearly gone, but the man I married 15 months before the stroke is only partly there.  Irresponsibility with money, logic problems, and impulse control are all issues with this type of stroke.  It is nearly impossible to get Medical Professionals to sign the letter necessary to gather control of a person's finances and medical decisions.  It has taken a long time, a lot of patience, and a lot of serious discussions and temper tantrums to get control of the finances - and I'm married to him.  It would be even more difficult with a parent (or in-law), unless they live with you.

Gather family support, if there are others in the family, and create a very good support network for yourselves and your family.  It will take time and oceans of patience (and tears).

Take care of you.

Crazy answered...

My mother had a stroke over 5 years ago. I definately say take the credit cards away. My mom had a business,house paid for and much much more. Now we have 2 mortgages creditcard debt of over 22,000.00 for her. She still is trying to open cards and sometimes she does. We are always returning things and struggling over money issues. The first 2 years I ran the business and had a high risk pregnancy so we had 2 aids that were 1,500.00 a week. It was hard to keep an eye on everything that was spent. They actually were buying 100.00 jeans for their kids. It was awful. Now I care for her w/ the help of another family but she still is spending. Take the credit cards and limit her spending.

Ca-claire answered...

If you have power of attorney, you could place a fraud alert on the credit bureaus, which would be pretty effective in stopping her from opening new accounts. Also, once her credit goes in the toilet - no one will issue her new accounts.

The practical expert answered...

It is not uncommon for people who are experiencing disabiities, depression or loss of mental and/or physical abilities to suddenly spend uncontrolably - they often even realize it but can't stop.

The need to spend is often caused by depression which can be hard to recognize that it is happening, especially with the other physical and/or mental issues happening and masking things. Shopping is a way of control, it makes you feel good that you are buying something, it is delightful when the mailman/ups/fedex or other shipper arrives with packages which are then opened and then hidden away so no one finds them or left in a corner forgotten and never used. Then on to the next BUY NOW button for the thrill.

Check out the e-book: Defeating Depression in the Elderly.

What can you do?

  1. Find a doctor or mental health professional who will administor a depression screening test.

  2. Unless you have been legally appointed Conservator by Probate Court or are the Representative Payee per Social Security, no actually have no legal right to restrict any access to the funds of a person over the age of 18.

  3. Delicate discussions need to be held with the parent or spouse on first opening discussing the issue of spending (no pointing of fingers, yelling, harsh words or emotions - keep it logic based),find common ground you both can agree on, then brainstorm on how you will approach things. Develop a plan and put it in writing. This is where you an agreement of how much money the person has weekly (don't go monthly as it is too long)to spend.

  4. Ideas to slow down the spending: get the person out of the house more, have more social interactions going on, have the spender businer in fun and useful activities and thus less time to spend. Limit time on computer. Send back items purchases if not used within one week - aggreement for this but you'll have to do the returning. Have the spender put internet items in the Wish List box of the store, this often will actually keep the person from buying as it feels like they are buying - you can empty the list at the end of every week when the new allowance starts. Catalogs - have the spender bend down pages of items they like, then they go over it again and unfold items they rethink about and if after 3 days, they still think they need the item then order but keep to the allowance. Remember to take advantage of sales and % off, clear out magazines every two weeks and return items not used.

For more ideas, contact me. Hope this helps. I've dealt with 3 family relatives with this and myself, personally, after illness and with many clients of mine.

Anjord answered...

I have a 89 yr old aunt for whom I have durable power of attorney. Her doctor listed her with dementia. She has no children, never married and her past is catching up with her. She was living alone in a 3 story house up until 2 years ago. I was able to get her to move into a senior residence that she is happy with. I am her closest relative and I live about an hour's drive away. Her house was a mess prior to her move. Although she kept up with her bills, most of her mail was unopened, had been that way for years and in piles. It took my granddaughter and I many months to get the place in order and sort thru the stuff before her move. Her main problem is that she had the habit of abusing credit cards, of which she had several. I was able to get most of them from her and I left her with just the two that I figured that she would really need for her necessary things. I try to deal gently with her but she is really set in her ways and stubborn. As yet, I have really no idea of how much she really owes. She gets a small pension and that is her only income. She has several businesses which have been deducting small amounts monthly from her checking account. I now have access to her account, so I can see her spending. She has been reasonably sharp mentally up to this point but she shows signs of poor judgment. A creditor was able to convince her (on the phone) to settle her past due amount and she is sending them $200 monthly. I have tried to warn her that there are many scams and people do take advantage of seniors. That evidently didn't work because a couple of weeks ago, she talked to someone else on the phone and ended up giving them her checking account number. The bank said that they could not stop payments but that she could change her account number.I made an appointment with a consumer affairs bureau (the attorney general's office) They didn't do much other than take down the information and say they would get back with me. I have also tried to contact another group (Senior Law). I haven't even been able to get an appointment so far, since they say they have been swamped with calls. I know that I am going to try to sell her house of which she has made me the beneficiary. She is going to definitely need the money to pay off the bills and to have a cushion for her future needs. This raises another problem--Her rent is subsidized and they know that she owns property. Once it is sold, they will raise the rent. Also the added income might make her ineligible for any other senior aid. Also if any creditors know that she has property they could put a lien against her property. I know that I going to need a lawyer for her. Any suggestions?