5 Tips for Helping an Elderly Parent or Relative Pay Bills

Your parents taught you about finances. You may have to repay the favor some day.

Mature woman (60s) helping elderly mother (90s) pay bills.
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It's almost as inevitable as death and taxes that late in life, many people find it a struggle to pay their taxes – not to mention their cable and water bills. With the aging population growing rapidly, it's a situation that will only become more common. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, by 2030, there will be 72.1 million people over age 65, more than twice the number in 2000. A sobering view came from an AARP report earlier this year that stated, "the supply of family caregivers is unlikely to keep pace with demand to assist the growing number of frail older people in the future."

So if you find yourself observing your parents or an elderly relative and believe they need a helping hand paying the bills, here are a few of many issues to consider.

Look for signs your parent or elderly relative needs help. Because they probably won't advertise that they need assistance.

"For years, my parents were making a mess of their finances and none of their seven children knew," says Mary Meyer, 48, a freelance writer in St. Charles, Ill. "They are 80 years old, and at some point, they lost track of the amounts they were spending and weren't paying bills on time, if at all."

It didn't help that her parents had health issues that took a toll on their cognitive abilities. Meyer's mother had a stroke in 2004, and her father was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2009. Still, they appeared to get through their health issues without too many problems. "We made the mistake of thinking everything was okay because my parents sounded okay," Meyer says.

[Read: How to Prepare to Financially Support Aging Parents.]

Meyer and her sisters kept a watchful eye on their parents' money situation, and in 2012 when bills started going unpaid, Meyer took over all of her parents' finances.

For people whose parents seem more frail and unsure than they used to be, Meyer recommends gently asking probing questions, like, "The economy is rough on everyone these days – are you able to pay all of your bills?" And if need be, she says, get straight to the point: "Do you have enough to live on?"

But be sensitive, urges Meyer, who saw how frustrated her parents were at their increasing inability to wrap their heads around how to budget. "Parents don't want their hands slapped by their children when it comes to managing their money," she says.

Set up automatic bill paying with the bank. Holly Whiting, a communications manager in Alpine, Utah, began doing that for her live-in 73-year-old mother, who is in the mid-stages of Alzheimer's. Whiting has arranged it so that after Social Security is deposited, the bills get paid.

There are third-party bill paying services like Quicken Bill Pay ($9.95 a month for the first 20 bills) as well as companies specialize in paying bills for the elderly, but some of those can be expensive – $60 a month and higher – especially if your parent's estate is complex. If your mother or father simply needs some routine bills paid every month, there's no reason you can't have the bank do it for you, often for free.

Limit potential trouble. Whiting's mother's mail no longer comes to the house. Instead, it is forwarded to Whiting's sister, who has power of attorney – legal authority to make financial decisions for their mother.

"[My mother] doesn't need constant monitoring or assistance right now, but can't live alone either," Whiting says. In fact, her mother still maintains some financial independence, like writing a check to the grocery store. But that independence can't go unchecked.

"She is very giving and was donating $10 to everyone," Whiting says. "Once you donate money, they sell your name to others and put you on the suckers' list. I swear, every politician, illegitimate fund raiser and some legitimate companies have asked my sweet, confused, aging mother for money ... On a fixed income, that's really a problem."

[Read: How to Protect Your Elderly Parents From Being Scammed.]

If you are also in this stage of the game, this is definitely the time to discuss with your parents the idea of seeing a lawyer and setting up a power of attorney. Parents of an advanced age might naturally resist the idea, but keep in mind that it doesn't have to be set up so that you make all financial decisions.