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Posted May 26, 2006

Ask An Expert

Elderly Behavior: Protecting Mom from Bad Decisions

Q. My mom is suffering from sporadic memory loss and confusion. She has a problem remembering numbers among other things. This is causing her to make poor financial decisions, such as selling a $25,000 item for $2,500 and trying to cash out her retirement fund. And she's doing this without telling anyone. I handle her bill paying, but how do I protect her from herself? When I talk to her, she agrees with me but then keeps doing things like this that endanger her assets.

Renee B., Stillwater, Minnesota.

A. These kinds of errors are common among older adults with dementia, and as your situation illustrates, they can have serious consequences. The fact that your mom agrees with you when you talk to her, and she is already letting you help pay her bills are both good signs that she may agree to take some additional steps for her own protection. Here are some points to consider:

• You do not say whether your mother has been diagnosed with dementia. If not, it is important for her to have a medical evaluation to ensure that her changes in thinking and judgment are not caused by a treatable, reversible condition.

• If your mom has not already done so, she should designate a durable power of attorney for financial decision-making. If that person is you, it will make it easier to assume additional responsibility and oversight for her financial affairs, particularly once she is diagnosed with dementia. You should consult with an attorney to learn about the conditions for activating a power of attorney in your state, and what authority it will give you.

• Once you have power of attorney, talking to representatives at the financial institutions where your mom’s assets are managed to explain the situation can be helpful. What you want is to be notified when your mom is taking action on an account that is outside of the normal routine, such as trying to cash out her retirement.

• If you have reason to believe that a particular individual or group is taking advantage of your mother, it is worthwhile to report them to adult protective services and/or to contact the state attorney general’s office for information about filing a complaint. In extreme cases, it sometimes becomes necessary to close out credit card and checking accounts, have mail rerouted to a different address (for example, a post office box), and the home phone changed to an unlisted number so a vulnerable adult is less likely to be presented with opportunities to be scammed out of their money.

• Finally, it is important to remember that the law is designed to protect the individual rights of the older adult, including his or her right to make bad decisions. Having a family discussion with your mom and your other siblings about financial planning can help ensure that her wishes are respected.

This answer is provided by Susan M. McCurry, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington, School of Nursing, and a licensed clinical psychologist. She is a fellow in the Gerontological Society of America and an expert in the development of behavioral interventions for the treatment of mood and behavior disturbances in persons with dementia and family caregivers. Her publications include the recent book, "When A Family Member Has Dementia: Steps to Becoming a Resilient Caregiver" (Greenwood Press). She can be reached at smccurry@u.washington.edu.

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