Financial Disconnect Among Seniors


DENVER—Nearly every family in America has dealt with mental aging issues, from someone forgetting to pay a bill to experiencing the devastating fallout from Alzheimer’s disease. Yet, despite the vivid reminders of what happens as we age, many avoid talking to their children and families about planning for what they hope will never happen.

A survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education and conducted online by Harris Interactive in November 2012 among 2,059 U.S. adults, finds that seven in 10 say major barriers are preventing their families from openly communicating about who will make financial decisions on behalf of an aging family member if they become unable to.

“Americans are living longer and they have concerns about becoming a burden to their loved ones. But with aging comes a high probability that mental decline can occur and without a financial plan, the burden looms,” says Ted Beck, president and CEO of NEFE. “The negative consequences of families delaying or avoiding a conversation about the financial impacts of cognitive decline are too high to ignore.”

The warning signs of diminished capacity in financial decision making can take on many forms. The NEFE survey finds that among those who have themselves or those who have family members that have experienced cognitive decline 47 percent have had trouble with bills, paying them late or not at all; 36 percent have had difficulty calculating simple math problems; 35 percent have made irrational purchases; and 21 percent have depleted their savings accounts.

While 86 percent of those surveyed indicate they would trust a family member to make financial decisions if they are unable to, the majority of people say there are family dynamics that are getting in the way of making this happen.

“Frequently there is defensiveness, denial, embarrassment and sibling rivalry when entering into a dialogue between adult children and a parent concerning their finances,” says Beck. “Families need to come together, clear the hurdles that limit communication, and do what needs to be done with advanced planning before aging family members start to experience these types of events.”

Families can begin the process of creating a financial plan by having an aging parent select who they prefer to take leadership of their finances should their capacity to make financial decisions diminish.

Tips for Family Members Facing Cognitive Decline Issues

Gather information. Take the time to learn as much as you can about the illness or medical condition that is impacting an aging family member’s financial capacity. Attend support groups and reach out to experts who handle matters related to Alzheimer’s, dementia or other diseases. If a parent’s cognitive decline is due to grief, reach out to a grief counselor. Share what you learn with siblings and/or other family members. This also is a good time to do a financial inventory. Consolidate accounts into as few as possible so it is easier to track and manage transactions. Also make sure that a will and financial power of attorney are current.

Be compassionate. Approach the family member experiencing cognitive decline in a positive and supportive way to let them know that you are there to offer your help and support. Be sensitive to their point of view. They have worked hard over a lifetime to accumulate their resources. The aging family member may be apprehensive about relinquishing control of their finances.

“Family members should be sure to involve the aging parent in the process of developing a plan where you are assisting them with their finances. Remember, this is ‘their’ plan so be sure to follow their wishes,” cautions Beck.

Implement the plan. Once the time has come for a plan to be implemented, the family member in charge of overseeing the aging parent’s finances should create a calendar of bills to be paid each month, checking in to ensure that bills are being paid on time and for the correct amounts. Accounts of aging parents also should be monitored to check for any unusual activity and annual credit checks should be done to safeguard against identity theft.

Divide caregiving duties. Have an honest and open discussion with siblings about a parent’s cognitive decline, what needs to be done, and what caregiving roles each family member wishes to play. Set up a schedule for each sibling. Keep family members who do not live nearby updated with weekly emails or phone calls. Invite all siblings who wish to take on some responsibility to do so.

For more information on how to plan for you or a parent’s diminished capacity in financial decision making, visit

Survey Methodology

This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of NEFE from November 5-7, 2012, among 2,059 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. Read more for complete survey.

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