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How should I deal with my father's clutter and unpaid bills?

April 12, 2012

Question: My father’s desk is cluttered with post-it notes, scraps of paper, bills and financial statements. They aren’t being filed and I'm not sure they are being paid. What should I do?

You don’t mention whether your dad has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or another dementia. If he has been, and is still in the early stages, try working alongside him.

Sometimes people showing the early signs of dementia lose their “start button” and have trouble initiating an activity. This may be why your dad’s desk is a mess, even if he has historically been well organized. Here are some ideas for a successful “intervention.”

If you ask your dad, “do you want me to help you organize your desk?” he’ll probably say no. A gentler approach to pushing the start button might be to pick up something and say, “Hmm, look at this interesting letter. I didn’t see this before. I wonder what else is here. Shall we look together?” Side by side, you may begin to create some order.

If you really feel that important bills are going unpaid, you may just need to go in and clean up his desk. It’s often easier, as the old saying goes, to ask for forgiveness rather than for permission!

If the financial chaos is as bad as you suspect, consider these steps:

  • Encourage your dad to establish a financial power of attorney, or at least add a second signature to a checkbook so that someone else can pay the bills.
  • Have the most important bills sent to another address—yours, for example—so that you can stay on top of them.
  • Arrange to pay the bills online to reduce the amount of paper coming into your dad’s house.

If your dad hasn't been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, now may be a good time to have him assessed. Even if Alzheimer’s is not the diagnosis, your dad may need more assistance as he ages. Before the paper stack gets any higher, your family needs to discuss how to keep your dad safe, solvent, and on top of his financial affairs.

Learn more about the stages of Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

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