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Detecting when a senior needs financial help

The longer we live, the more likely we are to lose track of our finances.

The cause may be physical (failing eyesight or shaky hands making bill paying and record-keeping problematic), mental (dementia or memory loss impairing our thinking and organizational skills), or a combination of both.

Since pride, or fear of losing independence, often prevents seniors from seeking help with the money chores of everyday living, their accounts can erode unnoticed for years, until one day, to their horror, they find themselves in financial trouble.

"They can be very adept at hiding their inability to be able to take care of their paperwork," says Liz Crystal, a daily money manager in Green Brook, N.J. "After driving, not being able to handle their finances is probably the most significant sign that they're losing their independence. They often hide it from their family more than anybody, mostly because the family is the one unit that can force a change."

Members of the American Association of Daily Money Managers are often the first to notice warning signs on bank and credit card statements that suggest a senior's financial skills are slipping.

"There are lots of red flags -- checks bouncing, utilities being cut off for nonpayment, large bills like property taxes being paid twice and mountains of unopened mail," says Pamela Brehler, a daily money manager and Certified Senior Advisor in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Paper blizzard
Frustrated by the limitations of age, some seniors will cease to pay bills and fail to enter deposits and/or withdrawals, reconcile their check registers or keep account registers altogether. Unable to differentiate between medical statements sent by their insurers and actual payment-due bills, some seniors play it safe and pay anything that looks official, while others simply stack all incoming mail in piles, unopened.

Both benign and nefarious forces frequently combine to take advantage of a senior's failing faculties.

Take charity for example, normally a worthwhile way to contribute to a better world. But because charitable organizations -- some legitimate, others questionable -- frequently share mailing lists, seniors who give to one may receive dozens of solicitations in return for their generosity.

"My clients love to give to charity," says Bridget Pendergast, a daily money manager in Virginia Beach, Va. "Unfortunately, they generally can't remember which charity they just gave to, and these charities will send envelopes for contributions every month or sometimes every week."

The flood of mail that flows from financial institutions alone often makes it difficult for seniors to tell a bill from a product offer. The problem is compounded by the tendency of the WWII generation to hold accounts in several institutions, resulting in a veritable blizzard of junk mail. Months, even years, of monthly membership fees and charges can result when they cash that "free" $10 check that triggers an underlying program. Just how many octogenarians need credit card insurance against sudden job loss?

Saddest of all, many seniors become targets of their caregivers and even their own family.

Next: "They are one step away from losing their independence."
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