Expert Q&A

Payment options other than credit cards for parent with dementia


There’s always cash or gift cards, but you can also get him a prepaid card or add him as an authorized user to one of your cards, but with a preset credit limit

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To Her Credit with Sally Herigstad

Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of “Help! I Can’t Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis.” She writes “To Her Credit,” a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women and credit, for She also has written for MSN Money and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

Ask Sally a question, or see if your question has already been answered in the To Her Credit answer archive.

My father is suffering from dementia and has racked up a lot of card debt. Are there other payment methods to give him to buy groceries that won’t allow him to go into debt?

There’s always cash or gift cards, but you can also get him a prepaid card or add him as an authorized user to one of your cards, but with a preset credit limit. As his illness progresses, you will need to take some steps to get more control over his finances.

Expert Q&A

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Dear To Her Credit,
My father is 74 and showing signs of early dementia. He has racked up about $10,000 in credit card debt, which we didn’t know about until now.

My husband and I want to pay off the debt. I took all his credit cards away from him. My dad has been living on his own with a home health worker coming in daily for errands, and so on, since his driver’s license was suspended due to memory issues. He claims he needs a credit card for groceries, but I am leery of giving him another one.

Do you have any suggestions on a way to give him the means of buying groceries on his own, but still protect him from going into debt? – Sarah

Dear Sarah,
Handling finances when someone is in the early stages of dementia can be tricky, as those of us who have had relatives go through that process can attest.

People who have failing memory and clouded judgment may insist they can still handle their finances without any help. Even when they admit there’s a problem, they cling to the idea they can still be in control of their money.

I can sympathize as being in control of one’s money is a huge part of being in control of one’s life. Your dad has already lost his driver’s license. Feeling as if he can’t go to the store and buy things is tough.

On the other hand, he’s shown he can’t be trusted with a credit card. As he loses his memory and judgment, he may keep buying the same things over and over because he doesn’t know he already has five tubes of toothpaste at home – or worse.

I knew a man who called his daughter and said he had spent his Social Security check buying woodworking tools, and he didn’t have any money left for food. She knew if she sent him any significant amount of cash, it would end up at the hardware store, too, and he still wouldn’t have anything to eat. Giving him a credit card, even one with a low limit, would have been worse.

His daughter called the local senior center and asked to pay ahead for daily hot meals. It worked out great – not only did he get a real meal every day, but walking to the center and talking to the other seniors gave his days some much-needed structure. She just kept reloading his tab at the center as long as he could go there.

If your dad has a social worker (which he probably should), the social worker can tell you if there are similar services available in his area.

Gift cards, prepaid cards, authorized user cards

Another low-risk way you can help would be to give him a regular supply of grocery store gift cards in low denominations. He will probably want a little cash for walking around money, too.

It’s also possible to get him his own prepaid card (affiliated with Visa or Mastercard) where you both can agree on a weekly amount to load onto it, or add him as an authorized user to one of your credit cards and request a very low limit.

Because the home health aide is taking your dad to the store anyway, it may be tempting to let him or her handle your dad’s finances. I would avoid that, for your dad’s sake and for the aide’s. If money gets spent when the aide is in charge, or if your dad forgets what he authorized the aide to buy, things could get ugly and accusations of fraud could be made.


Tip: There are legal steps that can help you protect a person with dementia from making devastating financial mistakes, including appointing a durable power of attorney, establishing a revocable trust and setting up a conservatorship.

This is a good time to take care of other financial details for your dad, if you haven’t already. You or another family member should make sure your dad has signed a durable power of attorney so someone can make financial decisions on his behalf. It easier and cheaper to have a power of attorney put into place now than it is to wait until you need a court to set up a conservatorship after your dad’s medical state progresses.

You can pay off your father’s debt if you want, and you may have reason to do so if you don’t want the debt to grow and cause more problems in the future. However, you are not obligated to do so.

You may want to first see if you can have any of the charges reduced or reversed. For example, if he purchased things that can be returned, or if he signed up for services he didn’t understand and never used. The credit card debt, however, is ultimately his, and you are not legally liable to pay it.

You’ve made a good start by taking away his credit cards, and the home health worker should be a big help, too. Progressive dementia requires different strategies at each stage, and just when you get a plan in place for one stage, things can change.

The best any of us can do is to try to give appropriate help, with as few restrictions on the older parent as necessary, until the next stage comes along. He is fortunate to have you and your husband protecting his interests and helping him feel safe and secure.

See related: Steps to protect finances of those with Alzheimer’s

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