How common money mistakes can reveal early dementia

If a senior in your life is making unusual financial choices, that could be a sign of cognitive decline.

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If your mom drains her retirement savings or your dad stops paying his bills, should you worry?

Yes, says Mary Schulz, director of information, support services and education for the Alzheimer Society of Canada. Odd financial behaviour can “be a warning sign for dementia.”

People in the early stages of cognitive change often make unusual purchases, change investment habits, hoard cash or accumulate debt.

Not all of these mean dementia – if the bank changes its website and dad gets confused, that’s expected. However, if he forgets how to use his bank card, that’s different. “This falls into the category of things dad used to be able to do, not something he just learned,” says Schulz.

With about half a million Canadians suffering from dementia, and more than 930,000 expected to have it by 2031, family members are key to identifying the disease and protecting their loved one’s finances. “Issues with seniors and financial vulnerability have increased over the last 10 years,” says Christine Van Cauwenberghe, vice-president, tax & estate planning at IG Wealth Management.

Here’s how to tell if money-related issues are a health problem, and what you can do to help.

Money’s cognitive connection

Managing money requires memory and complex cognitive skills, so when there’s a problem with the brain, some simple tasks may suffer.

Alzheimer’s impacts memory, so your mom might forget her passwords or even how to get to the bank. Someone with other forms of dementia might struggle with basic math or become confused by sales tax. Other dementias cause paranoid feelings or anxiety, so people could hoard cash or become secretive with money.

Cognitive problems make seniors more at risk of falling for financial scams, with Canadians between ages 60 and 70 losing $94 million between 2014 and 2017 alone, according to the Government of Canada.  A reliable financial advisor can help. Advisors know their clients’ financial details, so they’re often the first to see if something is off.

How to intervene

First, be aware of your loved one’s financial activities. If you suspect dementia, take your loved one to the doctor to get a diagnosis to rule out other causes. Medications and other illnesses can mimic cognitive problems. 

Then, make sure there is a financial power of attorney. Undiagnosed and untreated dementia will escalate and a power of attorney can protect your loved one’s nest egg.

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