November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.
Did you know that problems handling money and finances can be the most important and predictable sign of dementia, says Daniel Marson, professor of neurology and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
Signs of change
Here’s what it looks like in real life (we’ve changed the names, but these are real examples from actual clients):
Our client Diane noticed that her mom was starting to have problems completing once routine financial tasks. She forgot to pay the home insurance bill, and almost had her policy cancelled.
David’s dad almost got conned into paying for unneeded and expensive roof repairs by an unscrupulous door-to-door vendor, and is being pitched a high commission annuity by a financial advisor he met through his church.
When Evelyn visited her older sister, she found she had paid for multiple subscriptions to a magazine she didn’t even like to read, and despite her failing health, signed up for a year’s worth of expensive personal training sessions at a gym far across town.
Barbara’s husband always handled the finances, but when checks started bouncing, she took a closer look at the statements. There were large checks written from the account that she couldn’t identify. Even worse, she found daily buy and sell transactions of speculative stocks in their joint brokerage account.
The canary in the coal mine
Unfortunately, these could be some of the early warning signs of cognitive impairment due to aging, early stage Alzheimer’s or other causes, says Prof. Marson.
Marson calls financial skills “the canary in the coal mine.”
“When you are seeing new problems in the checkbook or arithmetic errors, those are signs of an emerging disability,” he warns.
Surprisingly, financial skills may start to decline even before driving skills, which Marson says rely more on deep-seated motor memory.
Five financial warning signs
Based on his clinical work and research as a neuropsychologist, Marson developed his list of the five financial warning signs of Alzheimer’s. (Don’t worry – occasional forgetfulness doesn’t count. That’s normal.)
1). Memory lapses. Forgetting to pay bills or annual taxes, or paying bills twice, especially for someone who’s been on top of financial tasks in the past.
2). Increasing financial disorganization. Mail that remains unopened for several months, brown bags full of financial papers, or neglecting important deadlines and paperwork.
3). Math mistakes in everyday life. Difficulty working through everyday math, like calculating a tip, or giving change, or balancing an account.
4). Confusion. Failure to understand financial concepts that were once clear. In fact, one of the first signs of impending dementia is “an inability to understand money and credit, contracts and agreements,” says the New York Times.
5). Impaired judgment. Even the most astute individual might start falling for get-rich-quick schemes, or spending thousands in secret on sweepstakes entries. Other signs are impulsive credit card purchases, extravagant gifts and loans to others, or succumbing to high-pressure sales pitches.
Important first steps
Spotting the signs of Alzheimer’s is the first step. If you recognize any of these warning signs, seek out a professional evaluation and explore medical treatment.
The good news is there are numerous options to help handle the finances and protect your loved one from danger or exploitation.
We’ll explore some of those next week, along with ways you can prepare and protect yourself as you age.