Expert Q&A

When elderly parents abuse credit cards


A reader’s 80-year-old mother has charged $120,000 on various TV shopping channels. What’s a daughter to do?

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
My mother is 80 years old. She is in credit card debt for $120,000. This is due to shopping via television programs. I cannot help her with this debt. Any suggestions?  — Diane

Answer for the expert

Dear Diane,
That’s a lot of impulse buying! Where is she putting all this stuff? Spending $120,000 on gadgets and goodies advertised on TV borders on the irrational. It’s a good thing you are aware of the problem and want to help.

What you can do to help, however, depends on a couple of things.

First, does your mom want your help? If she is just complaining but isn’t ready to take advice, then there’s not much you can do. I normally advise helping elderly parents financially when necessary, but you can’t afford to finance out-of-control spending. If you tried, it may just encourage her to spend more.

Second, is your mom of sound mind? It’s awfully hard to make that decision. Eighty years old looks so different on different people — some people are still working at that age, or could be, while others are starting to show judgment lapses. The most difficult cases may be those who are just as sharp as ever 90 percent of the time — and then do inexplicable things the rest of the time.

Sometimes, a person’s health or the medications they are taking can affect their judgment, even on a temporary basis. I remember when I went to the hospital to visit a friend who had just had back surgery. My husband and I expected to find a wan, weak person lying in bed. Instead, we found Maureen standing by her bed, phone and credit card in hand, staring with pain med-glazed eyes at the shopping channel! She bought so many things she didn’t remember, boxes were coming to her house for weeks.

If your mom truly wants help with her problem (not just help paying the debt), there are some great resources out there. Debtors Anonymous is a fellowship of people dedicated to helping each other stop “debting,” as they call it. Debtors Anonymous charges no dues and is very successful helping people stop spending compulsively.

To deal with her existing debt, she needs a financial counselor to look at her total financial picture and show her some options. I recommend a member of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (AICCCA).  One of the first options I would suggest is that she returns every item she possibly can, and sell much of the rest. You could even help her sell collectible figurines and whatnot on or other online sites.

If your mom’s mind is starting to slip, your tactics will be different. “Find out if she doesn’t remember buying all this stuff again and again and again,” says Georg Finder, independent credit evaluator. If she isn’t sure, or if she denies buying all of it, you definitely need to step in.

You may need to have yourself appointed as her guardian, according to Finder. That way, she can’t go on more buying binges. “Call the card companies to lower the spending limit to what she owes now,” he says. Or call the credit card companies and see what they suggest. “Tell them what Mom is doing. They may actually suggest something helpful — different cards have different policies.”

If you live with your mom or happen to be there when boxes keep coming, you can be proactive. Finder says, “Tell the delivery person that the sale is refused — that will cancel the charge and mom will go on a list.”

It would be easy to say that it’s the credit card companies’ problem if your mom spends money she can’t pay back if she is starting to lose her decision-making powers. However, we should never give someone the responsibility for something that we don’t want to give them power over. I certainly don’t want banks to start checking on my mental soundness when I’m 80, nor do I want them to cut off my credit at an arbitrary age. The responsibility for good credit decision making has to start with us — or, in your mother’s case, with a caring family member.

You are doing the right thing by helping to curb your mom’s irrational spending. It won’t be easy, but it’s the right thing to do.

See related: Credit card addiction: How to break the spending cycle

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