One of the biggest dilemmas facing adult children involves dealing with a parent’s initial signs of cognitive decline. At first, it’s easy to dismiss mom’s forgetfulness or dad’s angry outbursts, but over time it becomes clear that things aren’t what they used to be. Faced with this situation, the adult kids encounter a host of challenges. When is it time for your parent to give up the car keys? When is it clear that mom or dad needs help with the checkbook? And in our digital age, a growing number of concerned children are asking themselves, “At what point do I need to take away the smartphone?”
Taking Away the Smartphone: A Growing Area of Concern for Families
This issue is no joke, as we learned from reading this new Judith Graham article from Kaiser Health News. Graham quotes statistics from the Pew Research Center stating that nearly three-fourths of those 65 and older use the Internet today, compared with 43 percent just nine years ago. Clear back in 2013 (an age ago in digital time), fewer than 20 percent of seniors used smartphones – but by 2017 that figure was 42 percent. “Increasingly, families will encounter concerns as older adults become reliant on computers, cellphones and tablets,” writes Graham. “With cognitive impairment, these devices become difficult to use and, in some cases, problematic.”
In fact, many doctors are starting to recognize that diminished computer skills in tech-savvy seniors may actually be an advance indicator of cognitive problems. As one New York geriatrician observed when his aging mother began to get confused about passwords and programs, computer skills may deteriorate even “before [older adults] misplace keys, forget names or display other more classic signs of early dementia.” This confusion puts concerned adult children in a very tough position. “Deciding whether to block their access to their bank accounts, stocks and other online resources may present the same ethical dilemmas as taking away their car keys,” this doctor told Kaiser Health News. As a growing number of seniors use digital devices to communicate with friends and family via email and text, use Facebook, Skype or FaceTime, and do banking and shopping online, losing a smart phone is like losing touch with the world.
Taking Away the Smartphone: Failure to Act Puts Seniors at Risk
But failure to act may put a vulnerable senior at risk of financial fraud or other types of manipulation. At that point, says Graham, safety becomes an issue. If an older adult with dementia is being approached by scammers on email, family members should first try counseling the person never to share personal information. “If that doesn’t work,” she adds, “try to spend time together at the computer so you can monitor what’s going on. If possible, create shared passwords so you have shared access.” But beware: unless you have written permission, it’s against federal law to use someone else’s passwords and logins to check their email or bank accounts without their knowledge. This is another potential digital landmine for adult children whose parent is showing signs of cognitive decline.
Doctors say that older adults with Alzheimer’s disease will eventually abandon their digital devices because they will forget how to use them. But in some cases, seniors may be faced with a different type of cognitive disease such as frontotemporal dementia, which, says Kaiser, affects a person’s judgment, self-awareness and ability to assess risk. The article profiles one 75-year-old man with FTD whose wife, an elder-law attorney, “struggles [daily] to keep him safe in a digital world full of threats.” According to the article, this man receives hundreds of emails from telemarketers. He has Facebook “friends” from foreign countries who are all strangers. “He has no idea who they are,” his wife told Kaiser Health News. “It is horrific.” Recently he spent $1,000 ordering unneeded items from Amazon, and he sometimes “stores” the things he buys where his wife can’t find them to send them back.
Instead of Taking Away the Smartphone, Consider Putting Controls in Place
In the case of this couple, the wife would prefer to take her husband’s cell phone away completely, but she refuses to do it. “I’m very sensitive to respecting his dignity and letting him be as independent and autonomous as possible,” she said. “His phone is his connection with the outside world, and I can’t take that away from him.” Instead she secured her husband’s permission and has unsubscribed him from most of the bothersome online accounts. She has deleted unknown “friends” from Facebook. Since her husband was often going online on his phone in the middle of the night, she has installed a “parental control” app that blocks him from using it between midnight and 6 a.m. In the area of finances, the wife has provided her husband with a “stored value” credit card so he has a limited amount to spend. He doesn’t have access to the couple’s online banking account, and she has alerted credit bureaus not to open any new account in the husband’s name.
As with so many issues involving aging and families, decisions like curtailing a senior’s digital access or restricting access to online accounts can be delicate. In our experience, it’s best if families can prepare for choices like these well in advance, often through a family conference where parents and adult kids can discuss their roles and expectations openly as they walk the journey of aging together. It’s an effective way for all concerned to bridge family differences and to be better prepared for whatever life brings your way. Contact us at AgingOptions if we can assist you in scheduling and facilitating one of these vitally important meetings.
Peace of Mind Comes Through Proper Planning
Speaking of preparation, when it comes to planning for your own retirement, the most powerful tool we know of is an AgingOptions LifePlan – a comprehensive approach to retirement, pioneered by Rajiv Nagaich, in which all the key elements of retirement living are woven together. These elements include finances, of course, but also family communication. Your legal protection strategy becomes part of your LifePlan as does your housing strategy and your plan to address short-term and long-term medical costs. As we said, it’s a truly comprehensive approach.
We encourage you to join Rajiv Nagaich and learn more at a free LifePlanning Seminar near you. There’s no hard sell of any kind – just an entertaining and information-packed session that will open your eyes to this new approach to retirement planning. Any next steps are entirely up to you. For a complete calendar of currently scheduled seminars, visit our Live Events page and register for the date of your choice. (And while you’re there, please silence your smartphones.) Age on!
(originally reported at www.khn.org)