May - June 2017

Written by Keith Schwanz
From his column It's Your Money

father sonI had arrived in Portland on the last flight of the day. The next morning I went to see my father in the care facility where he was living. I found him asleep in his recliner. Once he awoke, I pulled a chair close, and we began talking. He didn’t seem to be tracking, so I asked a question for which I knew the answer. He responded incorrectly.

Still trying to connect with him several minutes later, I said, “I flew in from Kansas City last night.” Dad perked up. “Kansas City,” he said. “Do you know Keith Schwanz? He lives in Kansas City.” “That’s me,” I blurted out.

The look on my father’s face at that moment is imprinted in my memory. He recognized Kansas City and Keith Schwanz, but he did not connect me with either. I have never seen a more bewildered expression than in that moment when my father tried to make sense of it all.

Years earlier, my siblings and I helped our parents make a transition with matters of personal finance. At the time of this visit, my sister was assisting with day-to-day money management, and I watched over the long-term investments. Years before, while my mother was still alive and we lived nearby, I happened to notice a utility statement that indicated she had paid a bill twice. So I began regular visits in which I would sit with her to pay monthly bills. I sorted through the statements and guided as she wrote the checks.

Routine Tasks and Financial Judgment

One study reported that greater than 50% of those persons age 85 and older show signs of cognitive aging—everything on the continuum from mild impairment to dementia. When it comes to personal finance, a person who for years has done the routine tasks of reading monthly statements and paying bills may be able to continue doing so. What goes first is the ability to make good financial decisions as circumstances of life change.

Consider the example of Elmo and Meliitta Marquette. Both in their 80s, they wanted to sell two acres of land to a neighbor. The sellers suggested a sale price of $22,000; however, according to the 2013 property-tax statement, the actual market value was $220,400. When this transaction became public, the outcry was loud, especially because the buyer was a licensed real estate agent. The Marquettes had lost the ability to assess the financial facts, and suffered for it financially.

Cognitive aging may be a factor in a situation where the spouse who managed the family finances dies. The surviving spouse may be in a vulnerable position if he or she has not established a working knowledge of money management. Further, because of cognitive aging the survivor may have less capacity to learn new skills.

Necessary Assistance

The day will come when I, too, will need assistance with money management.

In recent days, I have been reflecting on my own journey. The day will come when I, too, will need assistance with money management.

In our household, I am the one with primary responsibility for tasks like bill paying and long-term issues such as retirement planning and insurance coverage. I intentionally talk with my wife about these things on a regular basis, motivated in part by the likelihood that she will outlive me. For more than 15 years, at the end of every quarter, I have prepared a detailed financial statement that helps us monitor our progress toward essential goals as we prepare for retirement. My wife and I always talk about the quarterly report.

But I have decided that it is time to add one more step to the process. To this point our conversations have been just that—talk. Now, I am putting it in writing. At the end of each quarter I will write down my observations about the report, review financial decisions made in the previous three months, document atypical expenditures, clarify or restate financial goals, and list upcoming tasks for good financial management.

For now, this financial journal will be for the benefit of my wife and me. There will come a time, though, when our children will likely read the journal and be able to trace the trajectory of our financial management. Hopefully they will recognize when cognitive aging has become an adverse factor and it is time for them to step in and assist.

I am not eager for that day to come, but I know it will. I don’t relish the thought of turning over the financial management to others, but I know eventually I must. When that time comes, I may not detect it, so I’ll need others to be paying attention. I hope the work I do in the coming years will make that task easier for those looking out for our interests when we can no longer do it for ourselves.

Keith Schwanz works as a writer and editor. He previously served as a pastor and seminary educator.

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