Tess Vigeland: The decision to take away the car keys from an elderly parent is a tough one. The same goes for taking away the checkbook. Neurologists say elderly people's financial decisions can provide early warning signs for Alzheimer's or dementia, and it can be a clue as to when children should step in.
Our Economy 4.0 series is about how to make the economy better serve more people. David Brancaccio reports from northern Minnesota.
David Brancaccio: It's a colossal round trip just to see dad. Rick and Lauri Barber have driven the same 200 miles from Minneapolis to Grand Rapids, Minn., 23 times in the past year. The 15-foot roadside Walleye means they're still not there.
Rick Barber: You can't see it but there's a huge fish on the other side. That's like the halfway mark between Grand Rapids and Minneapolis.
Lauri Barber: We're halfway.
It's a four-hour trek each way, every two weeks to visit Rick's father. Sadly, Dick Barber, who's 78, has dementia and lives in assisted living near his old house.
Nurse: OK Dick, you can let go. There...
Rick says his father had hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside for his retirement in savings and stocks. But then, Dick's wife passed away -- cancer. Dick's own health deteriorated. And then he started to make some strange financial decisions.
Rick: It was funny when the wine started coming. We thought it was a gift from one of my sisters or something. And everybody said, "We didn't give it to him." And then eventually he got a bill. You know, it was hundreds of dollars a month.
You see, Dick had always been a very careful man with a dollar. Family vacations tended to be frugal camping trips. But seemingly out of nowhere, he was buying stuff like expensive subscriptions and giving to charities, lots of them. And he was paying for graduate school, weddings, down payments on houses.
Daniel Marson: You know, as a neuropsychologist, what I would be thinking is, is this someone who has now got significant short-term memory loss?
Dr. Daniel Marson is a professor of neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Marson's found that there's a relationship between neurocognitive disorders and financial decisions. He says a first sign of Alzheimer's or dementia may not be mom or dad forgetting names, but a change in how they handle their money.
Marson: Mom's checklog, which used to be a model of clarity, maybe there's not nothing there and there's an occasional entry. Or you go out to a restaurant with your dad and he's having trouble figuring the tip and he's putting down way too much money.
Other warning signs? Bills going unpaid, parents not filing taxes. Marson's designed a clinical test to help doctors notice these kinds of changes in their patients. But even if the warning signs are there, children tend to look the other way.
Marson: But the fact is that the individual undergoing decline often lacks insight in to the fact that they are undergoing this decline and so they're not going to be calling out for help. And particularly, if they might have lost a spouse, they're going to be very vulnerable.
Lauri says after her mother-in-law died, Dick's financial confusion got worse. They looked at his bank account and discovered hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees. With the permission of the other siblings, Rick and Lauri took over Dick's accounts.
Lauri: He just very quietly just handed us the checkbook. It was pretty sad. We'd already taken his ability to drive away, and so it's just another step in losing.
Lauri, outside with Dick: You're OK.
Rick and Lauri take Dick to the site of a house they're building for him. It'll be a modest place, but will include a small apartment for a live-in nurse.
Rick: Looks like a fire place will be right here.
Lauri: Probably put the couch right here.
Dick's now in a wheelchair and doesn't speak much, but when they take him around, he grins.
Lauri: You like that?
Dick Barber: Yup.
The couple promised Rick's father he could live out his life by the lake he loves.
Lauri: Dick, I'm going to go down backwards, 'cause I think it's going to be better for you.
Dick's wife's ashes are buried under a tree by the shore.
Lauri: I'll leave you alone for a second, OK.
Dr. Mark Lachs, is the director of geriatrics at New York Presbyterian and the author of the book "Treat Me, Not My Age." He says that the Barbers are far from alone in their situation. By age 85, about 45 percent of us will have some form of cognitive impairment.
Mark Lachs: So while we want to protect older people to have freedom of decision-making around how they use their finances, I think we have to acknowledge legislatively, the impact of an aging population. And somehow, create a system that protects people from decision-making that's based on brain disease.
Later that day, the Barbers drop Dad back at his temporary set-up at the assisted living place.
Rick: So, dad? It'll probably be a couple weeks that we'll be back here. OK? OK. See you.
Nurse: Well welcome home, Dick. I hope you had a good time.
They complete the dark drive back to Minneapolis. It'll be a 13-hour road-trip. Rick says of course he's happy to help his father. He only wishes they'd stepped in earlier.
Rick: It's hard to know, you want to respect independence, but at the same time, if you know that their money isn't going to last, as soon as it's gone, you're the one who's going to be paying for it. So in retrospect, now it seems to me that you have more of a right to be more forcefully involved earlier in the process. Maybe that's something to talk to them about.
He adds it would have saved his father and he and his wife a lot of money, six-figure amounts of money, that the younger Barbers could have used for their own retirement savings.
I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace Money.
Vigeland: And our Economy 4.0 coverage continues next week with a story about how older people often fall victim to financial abuse at the hands of their own family members. David talks with a prosecutor about the telltale signs Monday on Marketplace.
Rick and Lauri Barber are sources with the Public Insight Network. You can contribute your story and be part of the network here.