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Look at competency rather than age when wondering how much help older adults need

In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol says reaching a certain age does not make anyone suddenly incompetent.

Carol Bradley Bursack updated column sig for online 10-21-19.jpg
Carold Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
The Forum

Dear Carol: I’m a new reader so maybe you’ve written about this topic, but I’ll ask anyway. My mom’s 78 and my dad’s 82. They seem to be doing great. For example, they recently updated their legal documents, and they’re open with me about their end-of-life wishes. They tell me that if one of them dies, I should help the survivor manage their finances.

This is all good and I’m grateful, but I read so many articles about adult children missing red flags about parental health that I constantly wonder if I should already be doing more. How do I know? — DL.

Dear DL: You’re right that I've addressed this, but I’ve received several similar questions within the last couple of weeks, so we’ll take another look.

The articles you're referring to are probably about the current research stating that early signs of dementia may show up in the way older adults manage money. Therefore, adult children are urged to watch for unpaid bills and missed routine payments as a sign that their parents are losing ground cognitively.

Things to consider: While it’s a fact that nearly everyone will lose some memory capacity with age, there are different types of memory that allow some to compensate better than others. Age-related memory loss doesn’t mean that people have dementia, but it's true that a significant number are headed that way. This makes them vulnerable to financial abuse. Therefore, how people manage their money is currently considered a good guideline for their competency levels overall.


What’s seldom mentioned is the fact that age shouldn’t be the determining criteria for when assistance is needed — competency should. So, yes, since age is a major risk for cognitive problems, families need to be aware. Yet, individually, people age differently. Reaching a certain age does not make anyone suddenly incompetent.

You're fortunate, DL. Not all older adults are as realistic as your parents. Some refuse to even discuss their finances due to lifelong distrust or current denial. Others can become paranoid because they are already showing cognitive deterioration. From what you’ve said here, there seems to be no evidence of either with your parents. It sounds as if they are a close couple and will automatically cover for one another, which is normal, so watch for an unusual amount of one of them stepping in to aid the other’s memory.

Be careful not to jump on every small thing. That’s not only annoying but hurtful, and something as common as stress or a bad cold can cause anyone to slip a bit. Simply be aware of how they seem overall. If you notice bills not being paid, medications being missed or risky driving behavior, talk with them about making some adjustments. Listen carefully without judging. Then, if necessary, gently let them know that you’d like to be more involved with their finances and their health.

For now, your parents are aging as we’d all like to age, so celebrate their great health and make the most of it!

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at She can be reached through the contact form on her website.

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