Part I. Money Woes
My mom’s phone call, asking for help, was the day my parents began to give up their independence. Although I don’t remember the day or what I was doing at the time, I will never forget the call itself, because my mom had a terrible habit of not wanting to “be a bother.” (Here’s an extreme example of what I mean: I didn’t find out about my mom’s radical mastectomy until she was recovering from the surgery in her hospital room. When I asked her why she didn’t let me know about the operation ahead of time, she said, “I didn’t want to be a bother.” But that’s another story for another time.)
Dealing with Harassing Phone Calls
In this case, Mom told me she was calling for help because she knew she was getting “forgetful” and didn’t know how to deal with the harassing phone calls from creditors. (She was eventually diagnosed with cerebral atrophy, which had a big effect on her ability to manage the household and day-to-day living.)
My mom retired at age 81 after a successful career as a surgeon that spanned more than five decades. My father, 95 years old at the time, had started an organic farming business on my parents’ beautiful 96-acre farmstead in Michigan after retiring as a deputy marshal when he was about 78 years old.
Unbeknownst to me, my parents had decided to re-mortgage the property and had taken on a ton of credit card debt in the previous couple of years in order to keep the farming business afloat. These decisions put a lot of pressure on their finances after my mom got laid off from her job at a local community hospital. They were living off of Social Security checks and my mom’s modest pension when the debt load started to become too much to bear.
By the time my mom picked up the phone to ask for help, the bills coming in were staggering. My parents had fallen behind on making even minimum payments, so the interest rates on these major, very popular, credit cards had skyrocketed upwards of 29 percent on cards that were carrying high balances. I remember crying as I went over those statements. I was also angry at the credit card companies for taking advantage of my elderly parents and allowing them to take on so much debt at that stage in their lives.
The First Step: Asking for Help
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It would take many months and the hand-holding of a dear friend who is also an accountant and the assistance of an attorney before we unraveled the entire mess. I spent several weeks at the farm that summer, sorting through piles of unpaid bills, cleaning out the refrigerator filled with spoiled food and basically helping my parents get their affairs in order. The transition from rural farm life to assisted living in an urban setting was not far off at that point.
On that fateful day, however, I had no idea of the depth and breadth of the financial trouble my parents were in–I remember speculating that it must be pretty horrible, though, in order to induce my kind, but reluctant, mother to pick up the phone. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: Hi, Mom, how are you?
Mom: Well, honey, we’re not doing so well and I don’t know what to do! The phone has been ringing day and night and we can’t pay our bills and I haven’t been able to find a job…I guess I’m calling to ask for your help.
Me: [after taking a moment to retrieve my jaw, which had dropped to the floor] Of course, Mom. I will do everything I can.
To be continued.
Warning Signs that Your Parents May Need Help
According to the Financial Planning Association, money mismanagement is just one of many signs that may indicate the need for children to step in and help their aging parents. Elderly people also are prone to fall prey to financial scams, may purchase inappropriate financial products, engage in compulsive gambling and become victims of financial abuse by caregivers or family members, according to the FPA.
Finances are just one indicator that something is amiss and that adult children may need to begin parenting their parents. Marye Audet lists a number of signs to watch for.
Transitioning from daughter to caregiver was a long, sometimes difficult, road, and I am the first to admit that I made many mistakes along the way. After researching resources for this article, however, I am very grateful that my mom was still lucid enough to recognize there was a problem and willing enough to ask for help.
Many adult children are not as fortunate. How do you address role reversal with parents who insist they don’t need your help? Here are a few links I came across that explore this very topic.
- “Aging Parents May Need Help Managing Their Money”
- “Becoming Parent of Your Parent…”
- “Why Do Boomers Wait So Long Before They Act to Care for Their Aging Parents?”
And, finally, Boomer Books provides a number of checklists and forms to help you decide whether it’s time to intervene and become a parent to your parents.