Dear Mrs. Riches:
My sisters and I recently became aware that our elderly father, who lives alone in another state, has been spending large amounts of money on "get rich quick" schemes and pouring money into mail-order books and seminars that promise instant riches. He's retired, and although adequately provided for, does not have enough money to sustain this habit indefinitely. When I tried to talk to him about it, he gruffly said it was none of my business. I understand that he's entitled to do whatever he wishes with his money, but I'm concerned for his welfare. The parsimonious man I grew up with seems to have morphed into an undiscriminating spendthrift. Is this perhaps Alzheimer's setting in? Help, please.
Dear Devoted Daughter:
Your dad has a point and he made it plainly: Butt out. But you have an equally valid point: What if the shift in his ways signifies something even more problematic than making hucksters rich?
In this day and age, when many adult children live states away from their aging parents, it can be particularly challenging to assess whether or not something unusual is afoot. After all, you can't drop in and use a line like, "I was in the neighborhood," when your parent's house is 700 miles away. But do plan a visit with your dad so you can assess his everyday functioning: Is he having difficulty paying the bills? Is he eating regular meals? How is his short-term memory? Does he seem different in any other ways? If nothing seems to have changed (aside from his new quest for riches), this may mean that your dad is just spreading his wings a bit. After all, he's only tasked with providing for himself at this point and can do what he wishes with his money. But it could, unfortunately, mean that you are catching very early signs of a problem, with more to come.
Encourage your dad to have his yearly physical while you are visiting. This will accomplish a couple of things: getting an objective evaluation by a medical professional and allowing you the chance to begin communicating with his doctor. Establishing a relationship with his physician (though limited by confidentiality) is a good first step in ensuring your dad will get the care he needs.
Familiarize yourself with the signs of Alzheimer's so you can keep alert to other possible symptoms. Alzheimer's is just one type of dementia, however, so don't rush to a diagnosis. You'll need the help of a professional in pinpointing the source of any health problems your dad is exhibiting.
Begin talking to your dad about his plans and wishes for the future. Though the conversation may be difficult, it's important to get an idea of what he envisions for his life and how he would like to be cared for should he need it. Check to see if he'd be willing to set up a health and financial power-of-attorney should he ever become incapacitated. This will ensure that his wishes are known and honored. Also, ask your dad where his important papers can be located in the event of emergency.
Begin to set up a support network in your dad's area. Include names and phone numbers of your dad's friends, his physicians, the civic or religious organizations he may belong to, and any community agencies that may be of assistance should you ever face a crisis. If all of this is just an empty scare, you'll at least be prepared for the future.
For the time being, we come back to the fact that it's your dad's money to waste as he sees fit. But it's still good of you to be alert to potential problems.
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Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement newsletter. To get your money and relationship questions answered, send her an email .