Little-Known Government Program Can Help Dementia Patients Manage Money

by Greg Daugherty Health Writer

One of the things that a lot of us worry about as our parents or other loved ones move into their later decades is how long they’ll be able to take care of themselves — not just physically but financially, as well.

That’s especially true if we begin to sense they’re becoming more forgetful or just aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

A new study by researchers at the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College offers some fresh insights into how American families are handling that situation today. Its findings may prove helpful as we think ahead to our parents’ old age or even further ahead to our own.

Few using federal program

The researchers set out to study why so few Social Security recipients participate in the agency’s Representative Payee Program. It allows someone else to receive a recipient’s benefits and use them on the recipient’s behalf.

Representative payees are typically family members or friends of the recipient but can also be social service agencies or other organizations. The payees are required to keep records and submit a written accounting of how they spent the money.

While that program seems made to order for older Americans who have trouble managing their finances, only about 2 percent of recipients with mild cognitive impairment and 9 percent of those with dementia are enrolled, according to the researchers’ estimates, published in CRR’s August 2017 issue brief.

For both dementia and mild cognitive impairment, the researchers relied on data collected by the national Health and Retirement Study. Subjects were judged to be mildly impaired if they:

  1. Couldn’t remember the correct date

  2. Were unable to successfully count backward from 86, in two tries

  3. Were unable to count backward from 20, also in two tries, or

  4. Remembered no more than one word from a list of 10.

How are the impaired getting help?

For the researchers, the next question became: If people who needed help weren’t getting it from the payee program, how were they managing?

As it turned out, a substantial majority of both those with mild cognitive impairment (85 percent) and those with dementia (95 percent) received some form of assistance, the researchers report. However, the source of that help varied widely between the two groups.

For those with mild cognitive impairment, a non-impaired spouse was the most frequent source of help, accounting for 37 percent of cases.

Children were far more likely to become involved in helping a parent with dementia than one with only mild impairment, 37 percent vs. 12 percent. And for obvious reasons, the dementia group was also more likely to receive help from a nursing home: 29 percent compared with just 3 percent of the mildly impaired.

As for those without help of any kind, the researchers found that they were most likely to be “isolated” — that is, lacking a non-impaired spouse or any children who lived within 10 miles. For people in that situation, Social Security’s Representative Payee Program might be worth looking into.

Greg Daugherty
Meet Our Writer
Greg Daugherty

Greg Daugherty is an award-winning writer and editor specializing in retirement topics. He has served as editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest New Choices retirement magazine, executive editor of Consumer Reports, where he wrote a popular column about preparing for retirement, and senior editor at Money. His work has appeared in Money, Smithsonian, Parade, The New York Times, and, among others.