Among the more difficult money challenges in life is knowing when to persuade an aging parent to hand over his or her checkbook or, if you're the one in your golden years, when to ask for help managing your finances.
Like seniors surrendering car keys because diminished skills might endanger themselves and others, transferring the financial reins becomes necessary when an elderly person begins making poor money decisions or becomes overwhelmed by financial tasks.
"I think this is one of the biggest issues we're facing as a population," said Ted Beck, CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education, a nonprofit organization that has recently funded research to study the issue. People seem comfortable making plans for handing over medical decisions to a loved one, but not financial decisions. "That's a step, culturally, we need to take."
Beck, 60, said he knows not only from professional experience but personal interactions as well. "When I talk to people my age at a cocktail party, this is the one thing that every family seems to be dealing with," he said.
Here are tips on dealing with this sensitive issue.
Sometimes older is wiser • It's not news that the brains of older people slow as they age, a recent academic study found. The surprise, however, is that when it comes to making money decisions, their life experience can more than make up for that decline, according to a study published in the journal Psychology and Aging and conducted by Ye Li, a University of California-Riverside assistant professor of management, and several colleagues at Columbia University.
"The findings confirm our hypothesis that experience and acquired knowledge from a lifetime of decision-making offset the declining ability to learn new information," Li said.
The point is to avoid jumping the gun when assessing an older parent's ability to handle money. "Don't overreact if there are signs of normal aging," Beck said.
Warning signs • There comes a point, however, when most elderly adults will need help. Among seniors who 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, according to a National Endowment for Financial Education survey conducted by Harris Interactive.
If you notice unusual money habits piles of unopened bills, compulsive purchases from TV shopping networks, rampant spending on lottery tickets, giving away money to sketchy charities there might be a problem.
The talk • Discussing the topic of aging and money is difficult no matter which side of the conversation you sit on. "This is not a five-minute discussion before Thanksgiving dinner," Beck said.
Ideally the older person would initiate the discussion. "Outline how you want your financial plan to be put in place, so you own it," Beck said. A good starting point for older people is to start the discussion with a spouse or partner first, making sure he or she is fully informed about financial matters and can take over, he said.
Other times, it will be a younger family member who gets things started. He or she should seek buy-in from the older adult, maintaining a respectful tone.
"I think it's important to put it in the context of, 'What do you want your plan to be, so we can help you implement it?' . Too often people wait too long, and it's like, 'We're taking this away from you.' "
The appointed one • While 86 percent of people say they would trust a family member to make financial decisions if they are unable, a majority of people say family dynamics get in the way, according to the NEFE survey.
"The fights kids have are legendary," Beck said. "The more open communication, the better."
It's OK to divide roles. For example, one child might be the right choice for making medical decisions, while another might be best for making the calls on finances.
The person taking over the money issues, often a child known for being level-headed or good with numbers, should do his or her homework to become comfortable with money matters. That might mean reading personal finance books or taking a class. "You'll have to make some potentially tough decisions," Beck said. "Make sure you're comfortable with that role, and you're not just swallowing hard and saying, 'Sure, I'll do this.' "
Financial inventory • Round up names of the elderly person's financial institutions and professionals, including phone numbers and online logins and passwords. Make sure that a will and financial power of attorney are current. Requirements for financial powers of attorney vary by state, so it's important to have one for the state you live in, Beck said. "Don't assume the one you have follows you," he said.
Know where to find important papers - birth certificates, insurance policies, tax returns.
Automate bill-paying • Among the first observable signs of cognitive decline when it comes to money is forgetting to pay a bill or paying bills twice. As an adult ages, put as many bills on autopay as possible - for example, an automatic debit from a checking account.
Examine expenses • Create a monthly budget and examine ongoing expenses, such as telephone and cable TV, to determine if they are unnecessarily high. If the person is susceptible to sales pitches, place his or her phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry, DoNotCall.gov, and opt out of mail advertising at DMAChoice.org.
Get online • Internet access to financial accounts is key, especially for monitoring an elderly relative's finances from afar. "You have that early warning that potentially something is happening that you need to find out about," Beck said. "You can do that from across the country now."
It allows a relative to monitor for odd spending patterns, identity theft and other forms of fraud, which has become a growing problem for the elderly. "You can say, 'Mom, I'm just going to look at your account to make sure nobody is doing anything bad,' " Beck said.
Consolidate • Consolidate accounts into as few as possible. For example, you might combine checking and savings accounts into a single bank and transfer investments to one investment firm. Fewer accounts makes money life easier to manage.
Monitor credit • You can help monitor potential payment defaults and new accounts that may have been opened by going to AnnualCreditReport.com and accessing the credit report for free from the three major credit bureaus. The person will need to provide his or her Social Security number.
You call pull one free report per year from each of the three credit agencies, so it's a good idea to stagger them, pulling one every four months.
You can also help the person place a security freeze with the credit bureaus, which blocks new accounts from being opened in that person's name without specific permission.
Gregory Karp, the author of "Living Rich by Spending Smart," writes for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at gkarptribune.com.