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Adult children often step in to handle tasks for parents

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Monday, April 11, 2011

After several years of her aging mother's hardships -- including open-heart surgery, a bad fall down 13 stairs and the death of a close companion -- Mary Margaret Esler knew she needed to step in and help her mom, Irene Esler, manage her life.

Esler, of Lower Burrell, has taken charge of her mother's checkbook and pays the bills. The younger Esler does all of the household chores, like laundry and cleaning, for Irene Esler, 77, who now is staying in a nursing home after falling and breaking her ankle. The older Esler has struggled, at times, as she accepts help from her daughter, with whom she has lived for several years.

"I have to give her a little bit of leeway, but she can't do it" on her own, says Mary Margaret Esler, 48. "She doesn't mind the help, but it's the fact that she can't do it anymore. She says, 'I used to do that; why can't I do it now?'

"I figured, if she kept me for that long, I can keep her," Mary Margaret Esler says, recalling her childhood.

When an elderly parent or other loved one reaches the point where everyday tasks become difficult -- particularly managing finances -- adult children need to intervene and take over some responsibilities, experts say. Yet, the situation is delicate; it's not easy for a parent to deal with what feels like a role reversal. After decades of managing their money and households, when older people can no longer do it without help from their grown kids, it can feel embarrassing and depressing.

However, when people handle the situation with care, few parents will rebel, says Stefanie Small, a geriatric social worker with Jewish Family & Children's Service of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill. And, if they are resistant, at first, after seniors start getting help, they usually feel relieved, she says.

"By the time you see somebody having trouble with their checkbook, that's an indicator that things have already started to go downhill," Small says.

At what point does someone intervene and try to take over some tasks for their aging relatives• Every case is different, but safety is primary: For instance, if your parents are leaving pots on hot stoves, or driving erratically, step in quickly, she says. The same principle goes if parents are heading for severe financial trouble, perhaps bouncing checks or exhausting their savings.

One of the most important steps to take when helping ailing relatives, Small says, is giving power of attorney -- the permission for someone to act and make decisions on their behalf, financially and in other ways. This can help to protect seniors from their potentially bad choices.

Alan Farber, an elder law attorney based in Whitehall, says he considers the power of attorney the most important of an older person's documents -- even a will.

"A power of attorney is a paper your family uses to take care of you if you're not able to take care of yourself," Farber says.

Power of attorney privileges can't necessarily stop the senior from making bad choices -- they often are targets of financial scams, like with some contractors -- but it can help, he says.

If an adult child is managing finances and has access to the bank account, the child might be able to stop a transaction before it goes through; but once the damage is done, there's nothing the adult child can do.

A power of attorney gives the authority to make routine medical decisions, consent to treatment and give permission to release medical records. Yet, the powers of attorney do not completely take over decisions; they share them with the older person, Farber says.

Sonia Porco, 63, of Plum, exercised power of attorney for three now-deceased family members: her father, and an aunt and uncle of her husband, Ed. Now, she has power of attorney for her husband's cousin, Gina, who has a cognitive disability.

Having power of attorney gives someone a tremendous responsibility, Porco says.

"You have to take this seriously and realize this is their life that you have in your hands," she says. "It's their money; everything is for them.

"It went fairly smoothly, but ... when you're in it, and these people are desperate, you feel a little bit like, 'Wow, let me see what I can do,' " Porco says. "At first, you do it because you just want to help them. Then, you realize you have to help them."

Beverly Briller-Burke -- whose 80-something mother, Shirley Briller, lives in an assisted living center in Mt. Lebanon -- decided to step in and help when, a few years ago, she saw her mother's dining room table covered with months' worth of bills and bank statements.

"I realize that she wasn't dealing with any of it," says Briller-Burke, 60. "That's when I realized that something was really wrong."

Although Briller-Burke and her husband, Pat, moved to the San Francisco area, she still manages her mom's checkbook and has power of attorney, from a distance.

Cheryl Dott -- administrator for The Thorne Group, Inc. Home Health Services in Youngwood, Westmoreland County -- provides in-home help for seniors. She also is helping her own parents, Alan and Shirley, manage their lives after they started bouncing checks.

Dott, 55, of Greensburg, sat down and explained to her mom that it will just be easier if her daughter handles the checkbook.

"My mother was fine, but my dad was a little more resistant," Dott says. "I told him ... it's one less thing that they had to worry about, and they can still live at home."

Now, Dott manages both money and medications for her parents.

"It's hard to accept that help," she says. "And then, once they do, they really love it.

"It gets to the point where they're willing to accept stuff just so that they can remain in their own home," Dott says.

Dott says make sure seniors feel they still have some control. Share with them financial statements and get their input on how they want to spend their money.

"It is really delicate," Dott says. "It's hard for them, I think, to even accept help.

"I think it's that age group; they're very proud," she says. "They never relied on anyone for anything. They got used to doing it all themselves."

Robert Viller, of Fombell, Beaver County, regularly cares for his 80-something mother, Rosemary, who has dementia and struggles with memory loss. The younger Viller took his mom's car keys a few years ago, and he handles her checking account and her bills. He runs errands for her, and takes her out to eat every day.

"It got to the point where you knew something had to be done," says Robert Viller, 62. "She was having trouble with her finances, and she just couldn't pay ... anymore.

"Anything she needs, I take care of," he says. "I feel responsible."

How to intervene

• Ideally, have talks about these issues before they become issues. That can save a lot of hurt feelings and strife.

• Make an appointment. Tell them that you want to have a serious talk about the future, and where they see themselves.

• Be sensitive. Speak calmly and in a non-accusatory way, and use "I" statements: "I see you struggling with this, and I want to help."

• Bring the person evidence of the problem, like bank statements.

• Offer to help in concrete ways, like "Can I manage the checkbook for you?"

• If your parents get defensive, back down, and say you'll revisit the issue later.

• Call in professional help, like a geriatric social worker, who can assess the situation. People often are more likely to listen to objective, knowledgeable professionals than family.

• Partner with the older person, instead of completely taking control of their finances or other areas of life. That way, they don't feel sidelined; they just feel helped.

Source: Stefanie Small, geriatric social worker

Additional Information:

Elder resources

• If you're looking for resources for your aging parents, trying using the Eldercare Locator. The service helps users find resources for older adults in any U.S. community. It's a free service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, and it is administered by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

Details: 800-677-1116 or

• Protective Services investigates reports of abuse, neglect (including self-neglect), abandonment and financial exploitation involving older adults. It also provides assistance to alleviate the risk of harm. To report a concern anonymously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, call: Regional Elder Abuse Hotline, 412-350-6905 or 800-344-4319, or Statewide Elder Abuse Hotline, 800-490-8505

• If you have concerns about the quality of care an older person is receiving from a facility or a caregiver, call the Department of Human Services' Area Agency on Aging at 412 350-5460 for guidance.



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