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Dec. 26, 2020, 10:07 a.m. EST

My 84-year-old mother forgot to pay her taxes and has some questionable credit-card charges; should I be worried?

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By CD Moriarty

Dear Ms. MoneyPeace,

My sister has expressed concerns about our 84-year-old mother’s memory and her ability to make reasonable financial decisions. I think my mother is experiencing the normal aging process, my sister is overreacting, and a decision to take away my mother’s financial independence will cause even more harm than a few careless or forgotten payments.  

Since I live far away and only see my mother two or three times a year, I asked my sister for some examples. She said our mother had forgotten to make a quarterly estimated income-tax payment and had received a notice from the IRS, had some charges on her credit-card statement from what appeared to be charities that she couldn’t explain, and couldn’t recall that she had transferred money from an investment account to another sibling.  

I speak with my mother every week, and while she might repeat a story from time to time, I’m truly impressed with what she remembers. Am I underreacting?

Faraway Son

Dear Faraway Son:

You are asking the right question. Now you need to understand about memory loss and how finances are affected. If a doctor’s evaluation and diagnosis confirms dementia, there are four steps you can take with your sister and your mother to protect her financial well-being while keeping her independent.

We may think mind decline and dementia only happen in old age or with aging. However, stroke, traumatic brain injury, certain medicines and a host of illnesses, including COVID-19, contribute to memory loss at any age . Even dehydration does. That’s why only a medical professional can diagnosis your mother’s condition. 

Because your mother knows your name and lives independently does not mean she doesn’t need help with her finances, even if a doctor does not see major issues. A recent study by Johns Hopkins medical researchers discovered dementia was associated with adverse financial events years before a clinical diagnosis . These financial events included missing payments resulting in lower credit scores up to seven years before diagnosis. 

Normal aging does not include memory loss , or everyone over the age of 65 would exhibit this symptom.

Your mother may be experiencing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) that may be the beginning of something serious — or it may not result in any progressive dementia. As for the great memory your mother does have, long-ago memories are stronger for those who may be losing with other cognitive skills. Equally, some elders just want to share their memories as they lose their peers.

Your sister may be noticing a range of small things that have leads her to believe your mother needs assistance. Studies have proven that in most dementia patients, social skills are the last to go. So your regular calls to your mom may not be picking up all the same signs your sister has seen.

Many people with memory loss are aware of changes but may not want to admit them. Others come up with coping skills. One woman I knew kept a list by her phone of each her child’s name and their children. So when they called she could ask about them by name. If she did not have that list, she would have been lost. But her adult child on the other end of the phone would have no way of knowing that.

Another client suffered a major stroke. After she was back home, her husband was glad to have her “back to normal” and they continued shared financial responsibility, with her paying the bills. Yet one look at their checkbook revealed things were not normal. She had started giving to a charity monthly the amount she used to give annually. When I asked about the payment, she said they kept sending requests every month. “I guess I forgot that I had given the previous month,” she said. 

What they were actually sending were thank-you notes, and she had misinterpreted them.  

From then on, they paid the bills together, as they had the financial confidence together that individually they lacked.

Memory loss may include a loss of judgment or weakened reasoning. A few careless or forgotten payments seem minor; however, by someone long-detailed and exact in their financial matters, this may indeed be a warning sign. 

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