Protecting Your Loved Ones From Financial Distress

Money problems are often among the first signs of cognitive decline

Reviewed by: Robin Hilsabeck, PhD, ABPP
Written by: Lauren Schneider

Close up of an older adult using a calculator with one hand and taking notes with their other hand. Her glasses sit on the table in front of her.

Financial management can be a complex task for older adults as housing and healthcare bills rise, household incomes decline, and savings diminish trying to keep up with it all. Additionally, older adults may face further challenges, as money troubles are often one of the first signs of broader cognitive decline such as mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

“Discussing money management with your loved ones can help avoid the potential for making costly mistakes as they age,” says board-certified clinical neuropsychologist Robin Hilsabeck, PhD, ABPP, who serves as Director of the Comprehensive Memory Center within UT Health Austin’s Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences. “Money management involves a lot of memory, planning and decision making. All of these abilities may be affected by cognitive decline. As a result, a person may forget to pay a bill or even make impulsive purchases.”

Hear more from Dr. Hilsabeck on how Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia leave seniors at risk for financial mismanagement and exploitation.

Know the Risks

Remembering online passwords can become a challenge for anyone, and can be especially difficult for people who experience cognitive decline. As more billing takes place online, people have to not only remember all their passwords, but also navigate multiple websites to make their payments, which can lead to distress and late or lapsed payments.

Along with the challenges cognitive decline poses to financial decision making, older adults are more vulnerable to scammers. “Scamming is becoming very sophisticated and very difficult to detect,” shares Dr. Hilsabeck. “People in the workforce are regularly informed about the latest methods scammers use to target unsuspecting individuals or groups. However, older adults are often retired, which means they usually don’t receive any forewarning or training on how to navigate this and are more susceptible to the ploys of scammers.”

Look for Warning Signs

While money problems can be one of the first signs of trouble, early signs are often subtle and hard to recognize. However, errors in money management may be able to help reveal the type of dementia a person has. “When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia, your loved one may show signs of rapid forgetting, such as when needing to pay bills” explains Dr. Hilsabeck. “Lewy body dementia creates fluctuating cognition in which one day, your loved one may be perfectly capable of writing a check, and then later that same day, they may not be able to do it at all.”

“It’s not uncommon for the first sign of cognitive decline to involve your loved one being scammed out of several hundreds or thousands of dollars,” continues Dr. Hilsabeck. “Your loved one may be the target of a scammer if they share that they have suddenly been spending their time and money with someone new, or if someone in your loved one’s life has begun to ask them for money. Your loved one may not realize that they are being taken advantage of, but by asking them follow-up questions, you can pick up on red flags about the situation.”

Initiate a Conversation

Whether or not you suspect a loved one is being targeted by scammers or experiencing cognitive decline, it’s a good idea to begin discussing money management with your loved one now. “Money is a very sensitive topic, and unfortunately, it only comes up after someone has made a mistake, such as when forgetting to pay a bill,” Dr. Hilsabeck notes. “Ideally, these conversations should occur before your loved one shows signs of trouble.

If your loved one is already experiencing financial distress or other money management troubles, normalize their experience by mentioning that many people forget to pay bills and ask if there’s any way you can help them to remember in the future. “Focus on your loved ones’ specific concerns to allow them to retain as much independence as they can,” advises Dr. Hilsabeck.

“At the Comprehensive Memory Center, we regularly speak with patients and caregivers about long-term financial management and can connect patients and caregivers with professionals in the field of estate planning,” says Dr. Hilsabeck.

Support offered to caregivers through the Comprehensive Memory Center is highly personalized and depends on the areas in which you need assistance in caring for your loved one. The Comprehensive Memory Center care team works with you on building a treatment plan that includes a variety of support services that can help you provide the best care for yourself as a caregiver as well as your loved one with dementia.

For more information about the Comprehensive Memory Center or to schedule an appointment, please call 1-833-882-2737 (1-833-UT-CARES) or visit here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.