Credit card spending and dementia
September 2, 2016 10:40 AM   Subscribe

My increasingly demented elderly mom has been making tons of online purchases. What should be my next steps to solve this. I have power of attorney.

Her purchases:

She buys books every day (see previous. I removed maybe a thousand books to storage boxes in the garage but she has picked this back up again after my intervention in the Spring.) Last month she spent $1000 on books. She donates money to the Democrats through ActBlue and many other charities. She forgets she has already donated that day and does it repeatedly, and also somehow donates in the hundreds when she means to send $5. My dad managed to reverse this month's donations charges but I think we basically need to really change the plan here, ideally to make this kind of spending impossible, as I anticipate it continuing to increase.

My goals:

1. Continue to allow my mom as much agency as possible. She is very independent, still volunteers and has conversations about current events. So my goal is to talk this through with her, even though she will forget the conversation afterwards. Ideally, we could talk about it and complete some change this weekend, and then when she gets mad later I can keep reminding her we did have the conversation and make the changes together.

2. If possible, continue to give her access to at least one card (debit or credit?) to make small purchases, go out to eat, etc.

3. Protect her from identity theft and fraud which I think she's at high risk for right now.

4. Work on helping her find other stuff to do. Sitting on the couch and buying stuff is her main activity every day! I am going to try to get her to visit a day program in her town for seniors with memory loss, but she is certain to hate it. Despite dementia, she has maintained her intense snobbery. I am still seeking ideas for how to engage her with any activity besides sitting on the couch reading spam email and buying books, but unfortunately she is in a loop of aches and pains that limit activity, so sitting all day, so aches and pains getting worse, with a smattering of anxiety and depression on top of her increasing confusion. She does not remember to or want to take medication daily and I live 1.5 hours away so cannot enforce.

Anyway, would love advice on any of this but especially am looking for a plan around credit card spending and the risk of her being taken advantage of financially.
posted by latkes to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: By the way, I have reached out to many resources with little actual help resulting. I called the Alzheimers national hotline. No advice except what I can easily google myself. Have asked social worker at her memory clinic about day programs etc, no advice except what I can google myself. Called her credit card company, no helpful advice except to try lowering credit limit.
posted by latkes at 10:46 AM on September 2, 2016

Best answer: can you/your dad take her regular credit cards and you can get her a reloadable prepaid visa? you might also be able to open a separate account at her bank with a separate debit card that you only put a certain amount of money into. just make sure that when the money runs out, it doesn't have overage protection from another account and that you account for overdraft fees (which is why the prepaid visa might be better.).
posted by koroshiya at 10:47 AM on September 2, 2016 [17 favorites]

Best answer: setup a credit freeze- this will prevent her (or anyone else) anyone from opening new accounts using her information.

if you can zero out the balances on the other credit card accounts close them and do the pre-paid visa as per above. otherwise there's nothing stopping your mom from calling to request a new card or a credit increase.
posted by noloveforned at 10:49 AM on September 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: 4. Work on helping her find other stuff to do. Sitting on the couch and buying stuff is her main activity every day!

Can you get her involved in some kind of game? Something similar to her current activities will likely be the easiest to get her to adopt. So, if she is sitting on the couch shopping online, getting her to sit on the couch playing a game on the same device she uses currently to shop (that does NOT have in app purchases) might be a relatively easy transition.
posted by Michele in California at 11:07 AM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can't enforce, but isn't your dad there? I know you can't control him, but he seems like an obvious resource for both activities and medication assistance. If that's not the case, I apologize for the intrusion.

If your dad is willing and able to manage an employee, and the budget allows, you might be able to find a college student or similar who will come by a few times a week and talk to her about books or art for $15/hour, and get her engaged in something besides sitting and shopping.

Your dad could also make regular "deliveries" of books from the storage container. This would be a nice, entertaining change for her.

You can also look into web browser parental controls. Depending on your comfort level, you could set up a dummy book purchase site or dummy donation site.

Finally, she might want to get involved in volunteering. This is something else that your dad might need to help with, but if there's a local museum or campaign office, see if they have a project that she could do with some gentle supervision. Your dad would likely want to be there, or within a 5 minute drive if she gets confused.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:11 AM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Could you talk to your bank/credit card provider about lowering her daily transaction limit? I have no idea if this is a thing (and a very quick google turned up results suggesting it might be) but it would allow her to retain some autonomy and emergency spending abilities without subjecting you all to the risks of her overspending?
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:16 AM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I should also note that if she is continuing to do things that put her in physical danger (like hoarding books) and your dad can't handle the situation, you can think about Adult Protective Services. It varies by location, and can be more useful in some areas than in others. However, at least in some places, the caseworkers come by, make suggestions, and hook people up with services. People often take better to suggestions made by non-family and it might take some of the pressure off of you to make all of these decisions on your own.

You might also want to get hooked up with a dementia family-and-friends support group. This kind of behavior is really common and people will have their own little tips because they're currently in the trenches. At the very least, you will have some people who will appreciate and accept the full range of emotions that you must be feeling---sadness, disgust, anger, frustration, love, tenderness, worry---it's all easier to talk about with people who have been there.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:17 AM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

No idea if this is helpful, but if she thinks she's going to read the books, maybe get her on the library's website? She can put books on reserve, maybe you can pay a kid to pick them up and deliver them to her house. The library website can be very satisfying to someone who's looking to self-medicate with books or the idea of books.
posted by gideonfrog at 11:58 AM on September 2, 2016

We have a similar situation going and you have my empathy for how hard this is.

I respect your desire to have your mom continue to have as much agency as possible, but I encourage you to think about that differently. You don't want her to be punished for decisions on matters that she no longer has the cognitive function to manage. You aren't taking away her ability to make financial decisions. Her illness took that from her. You are helping manage the symptoms so that she isn't impoverished or endangered. It took us so long to understand and accept that, but internalizing it helps.

Limiting her access to credit is a prudent step. She should have one prepaid card which you monitor daily (set up spending alerts). Also, lock down her credit with a security freeze (depending on your state there might be a nominal charge to do this).

We are still working on finding alternative activities. It's a toughie. Maybe with her love of books your mom could volunteer at the library?
posted by 26.2 at 12:01 PM on September 2, 2016 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone! Love the suggestions and would love to keep hearing more.

Unfortunately, she already reserves and picks up a dozen books a week from the library, and picks up free books from her volunteer job at the library bookstore, and spends hundreds+ a month on buying books ): (The 'volunteer' gig is good in some ways but I think she just sits on a chair there most of the time and then brings home bags of books every week)

Reading the advice so far: I have just found myself a support group and put the meeting date in my calendar (great idea), and emailed a job description for a once a week drop in and do mobility exercises and hopefully also talk about books to the local physical therapy grad program in her city. If that doesn't pan out I'll try just posting for a "keep her company and talk about today's news and books" job.

I'll work on the computer and credit card based ideas this weekend when I'm with them.

Thanks and again, more suggestions welcome.
posted by latkes at 12:07 PM on September 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately, I think you are at that point where you're going to have to start doing things that will make life pretty unbearable between you and your mom for awhile. You're simply going to have to take the cards away from her. She *will not* get better at the spending.

You need to protect her finances now, in preparation for the future, and that means blocking her from spending it all. I've been through this with my own mom, and none of what you need to do will be fun.

Sorry if I seem strident, but there's just no way to soft-pedal this.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:52 PM on September 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

This is all from my experience and that of other family members: If you haven't already - It would be an extremely good idea for you to talk to an attorney who specializes in elder law. Do this now and find out what your options are and what your options may be in the future. This situation sounds like something that could get a lot worse than you think, a lot faster than you think.

Another reason to talk to the lawyer is because you have power of attorney. You need to know what you need to do if you exercise it, as far as keeping records and such. There is a chance that sometime in the (possibly not too distant) future that you may be required to give an accounting of any funds you spent or moved on her behalf. You'd rather not have to scramble to do that if this happens.

Other things: Find out if she has a will and if so, where the original is - not a copy. If she doesn't, you may need to work with the attorney to get one provided she is in a good enough state of mind to do this. (My in laws don't have wills and I've been pestering them to write those up. I told them I don't care what they do, leave all the money to their dogs for all I care. Just don't leave us a huge mess to clean up.) You want her affairs in order before she is too far gone mentally to do this.
posted by azpenguin at 3:39 PM on September 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Might she be able to use a Pinterest account? If she likes to troll around online and find bargains and so on, she could still do that, but instead of buying she'd bookmark them all to a Pinterest account as a way of fulfilling that "collecting" urge. And then, maybe there's a meeting once a week where she picks a couple of things from the list to actually buy (or similar)?
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:44 PM on September 2, 2016

Does she read the books she checks out and buys? Would she be interested in cataloging her collection? A CueCat might be helpful here.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 4:53 PM on September 2, 2016

My Mom went through this. She was always big on donating but as her dementia progressed, she became the target of every goofy cause (think "Stop Obama from selling Alaska to the Russians" and other crazy right-wing stuff). She was never a far right conservative but they seemed to figure out she was impaired but could still write checks. A national company convinced her to pay for an expensive identity theft protection service and when I called them to cancel it, they wouldn't and said they had recorded her acceptance (along with giving them her bank and personal info). She often wrote out checks for every request she got in the mail. I think it was her way of maintaining some control over her life. It didn't get better, it became all consuming.

We had to take away her credit cards and check book and just allot her some cash every week. Even that began to disappear. She would receive a shopping bag's worth of junk mail every day. I think Thorzdad is correct that you are going to have to take over and that will cause discontent. We tried to find other things for Mom to fixate on but she just got angry; to the point of yelling at my brother that she wished he was dead.

It was tough to watch her change and it helped that her other sons could provide support but it was still pretty rough for my brother who was at ground zero. Your Mom may not get this difficult but from your description, it sounds like she can no longer handle her finances. She may not like you but there is a world of sharks who are looking for people like your Mom to rip off.

The time you have together is probably the most important. That is the best medicine, for her to see you and remember what she can about her family. You and your family will need support for if and when she lashes out at you. Remember that she isn't the same Mom that you are used to. Good luck and stay strong.
posted by jabo at 6:08 PM on September 2, 2016

For activities, try art! This book goes into detail about how theraputic it is for dementia patients and describes activities:
posted by Threeve at 6:33 PM on September 2, 2016

Just taking her credit cards away won't work if you don't remove any stored credit cards from the web sites she uses to buy books and make donations. And if the credit cards are in both your mom's and dad's names, be careful about closing accounts as they will affect your dad's credit rating as well.
posted by Joleta at 8:58 PM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

You may be at the point where you need to ask the probate court to appoint a conservator to manage her finances. When the protected person is no longer able to manage her own money and make her own financial decisions, based on physical or mental illness, dementia, or other reasons, the court can appoint someone who will do it for her. This would require a physician's certification as to her abilities.

Once she has a conservator, she no longer has the power to open accounts, make charges, or write checks.

(The details vary from state to state, but the overall concept is pretty uniform.)
posted by yclipse at 4:30 AM on September 3, 2016

1) take a bag of books (or four) out of storage. Bring her bag of books. Every time you see her. Everytime. When she gets tired of said bag, place back in car and give a few weeks later.

2) get her reading online. There are thousands of free digital books, and online libraries with digital content. Get her attached. She can reserve the whole library if she wants. It is free!!

3) Hey hey fanfiction. Seriously. Send her to her favorite books fanfiction page listing. Quality of writing does not matter. Thousands and thosands of free writings.

4) honestly, it might be easier to take away Internet access. With some forethought you can set up an offline shopping version and she can "buy" books. You can then bring in box of books every day. See #1.

5) be creative and firm. If she's not remembering well, it may be easier to take one card away at a time instead of confronting her. Like take the checks out of the checkbook. When she goes to write a check there are none there. Tell her to write down what she's trying to donate or pay for, tell her you'll order checks never do it. Rinse and repeat.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:39 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh and also give the library back the books she keeps taking. They can get in on it, give her variations of the same books, and allow donated books to go to others. Part of the goal is to make it a net negative, slowly reducing the books and reducing her inflow at the same time. It is even better because she can go to the library every day, the library will have books for her, but not all the books that could go to people who actually can read and understand them.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:15 PM on September 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For posterity, we cancelled all credit cards, started a credit freeze, and opened a prepaid debit card with her primary bank where my dad and I can add funds periodically. It sucked, she cried, but it is basically working for now (although she still makes a dozen or more small purchases a day, this avoids the large accidental ones.)

Thanks for the advice. I thought the Pinterest suggestion was especially interesting and I am trying to get her into Pinterest now.
posted by latkes at 10:42 AM on September 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

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