The Geography of Memory

A pilgrimage through Alzheimer's

Talking To An Aging Parent About Money

Here's what happened when I tried to start the money conversation

My mother is kneeling over a safe hidden deep in her closet, under blankets and a jagged piece of maroon carpet. It is a square gray steel box with a combination lock and deadbolts. She turns the dial three revolutions to the right past zero. Her curly head is cocked and listening for a tiny click.

I am watching from the next room, wondering whether she keeps her financial records in the safe. I need to get hold of them. I have found letters from her bank lying unopened on her desk. She makes big math mistakes at the grocery store.

And I am afraid she might be running out of money. Her shoes are looking shabby and she hasn’t bought a new dress for a year. Although she has been obsessively neat all her life, her bureau drawers are a shambles. I have begun to doubt that she can keep track of her checking account. But I don’t live in Dallas, where she lives. I fly from Philadelphia to visit her. Although I know where she banks, I don’t have access to her account.

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Tomorrow I fly home. Before I go, I should talk to my mother about this money situation. I can’t fathom what words I can use.

I wander over, and stand beside her. Subtly she moves to shelter the safe from my view. My mother has taken care of her own business since she was in her thirties, when my father died, leaving her with three children and no money. Lively and gregarious, with a ready quip and quick black eyes, she worked as a nurse to support us. Everyone loved her. No one really knew her.

The truth is, I don’t want to know how much money my stepfather left my mother, or how she has invested it, or how much is left. I passionately don’t want to know. I don’t need her money. And I value her autonomy.

The truth is, I don’t want to cross over from being my mother’s child to being her caretaker.

So I don’t talk to her about her finances.

Once I’m home, I vow to lead mother into a frank discussion about money during our next phone chat. My husband and I call her almost every day. The week comes and goes and none of our conversations present the opportunity. I make excuses to myself and renew my oath to do it the following week. But no. Every week that spring I swear to myself that I’ll speak to mother about money before Friday. But I don’t.

Meanwhile, the signs grow clearer that my mother needs help. She loses her check book. Anyone could lose a check book, I think, but I am aware that this wouldn’t have happened to her a year earlier. We change her accounts at her bank. Then she begins to call me, frantic about her finances, worried that she will run out of money before she dies. My sister and I begin to exchange phone calls about mother. My sister is prepared to take action. She talks turkey to mother about money.

That is, I think she does. I don’t know for sure. My sister lives in Dallas, so we’re not always on the same page about mother.

Finally, I talk to mother myself. “Look,” I say, “If I knew something about your finances, at least I could remind you that you don’t have to worry.”

“Honey, if I get worried,” she answers, “you just remind me to trust God.”

“Okay. Let’s just say I’m the one who worries.”

“Well then stop it.”

“Remember, you helped your mother with her finances.”

“Because my mother needed help. Dad was the one who took care of their money.”

It took months, really, years, before my mother relented and accepted help with her finances. Finally she agreed to hear advice from my sister’s husband, Rich. At first Rich just conferred with her. Eventually, he took over her everything, including her investments.

As my mother verged into Alzheimer’s I learned that her former secrecy about money was an extravagance that neither of us could afford. She couldn’t maintain the independence she had fought for so fiercely. With reluctance, she allowed me to begin cleaning her clothes, taking her to her doctors, helping her make decisions about where to move. Shyly and carefully I edged into a parenting role, trying to preserve her dignity. But it was not easy.

In the end, I think it was a relief for my mother to let go of her finances. She stopped worrying so much about running out of money. About money matters she trusted Rich, who was expert and tactful. And yet she clung to her independence. She kept many of her other secrets locked up as tightly as if they were in her safe.

Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, which tells the story of caring for her mother during her last decade. 


Jeanne's web site:


Jeanne Murray Walker, Ph.D., is a professor of English at the University of Delaware.


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