My Mom’s senile Swiss Cheese brain and Credit Card debt. (a bit long)

My head is reeling from finding out yesterday that my Mom owes about $22,000 in credit card debt. She’s 75, retired, divorced from Dad and living on a fixed income. She has 5 credit cards, the worst has $12,000.00 on it. This month there is a finance charge for $270.00, the highest rate is 31%, there’s a late charge and the minimum monthly payment is $1,229.00.

So how did she get to this point? Senility, mostly. That and the black hole known as the dining room table.

She was getting upset and told me she thought she was a victim of identity theft because she hasn’t charged anything on the cards in a few years. My sister was living with her a few years ago before Sis ended up in a mental hospital and Mom thought that my sister had charged God knows what on her cards. (She didn’t). Somewhere along the line Mom missed the monthly payments or paid the charges late. She didn’t know the rates would go up to 33% because of that. From there everything just snowballed. And snowballed. And avalanched.

Mom gets her bills and mail and puts it on the dining room table until she gets around to paying them. Unfortunately, that’s also where she puts magazines, grocery receipts, flyers, junk mail, you name it. Whenever I visited her she’d hand me a stack of papers and mail for me to go through because she didn’t understand what it was. I’d have to throw out or shred the fake plastic credit card offers, the life insurance offers, and basically separate the junk from the legitimate. She couldn’t identify the offers from the real policy. She never showed me any of her credit card bills because it was “private”. I spent last night and this morning cleaning off the dining room table and my nerves are shot.

Mom is an Alcoholic and was in rehab about 5 years ago. I believe this is how her brain turned into Swiss Cheese in the first place, she used to have a couple scotches every night to help her get to sleep. She fell off the wagon 3 years ago and got back on again, but she has all kinds of problems and almost got kicked out of the retirement community she lives in. My ex brother in law and his girlfriend have been living with her, so she’s not alone, but they don’t want to get involved in her personal business and I can’t blame them. I’m glad they’re there to cook and clean, I’m sure if they weren’t there she wouldn’t shower, wouldn’t clean the house and would live on cookies and Burger King.

Mom has been paying for the credit card protection on her balances and thought they kicked in automatically when she couldn’t make her payments. She didn’t know she was supposed to call the 800 number next to Credit Protection on the statement. She has been in the hospital a few times in the last few years, I don’t know if it would have helped much if she did call.

She thought her purse had been stolen back in 2006 and she reported it to the police. My Dad drove to her house and helped her cancel all her cards and do the paperwork for getting her license and SS card replaced. Three months later she found her purse in a drawer where she “hid it”. (Dad and I live a couple hours away from her house).

I love my Mom, I do. I was going to pit her brain, but I don’t have the heart to do it. Tomorrow I’ll be calling the credit card companies and the NFCC to see what I can do to help her. Dad and I can’t afford to take on her debt. She’s in the hospital right now for an infection in her gums and a “heart irregularity”. I don’t know how many years she has left, but I would like to make them as stress free and comfortable as possible.

Has anyone else gone through this with a parent?

When you say “fixed income” do you mean social security? Does she have any real assets?

If not, you might want to look into bankruptcy. I don’t think they can touch social security income.

I’m sure an Elder Care lawyer could help. They generally work for reasonable prices, and will let you know all your options.

Good luck. I’ve not been in your exact situation, but I’ve got elderly parents (who are currently taking care of THEIR elderly parents) and I know how desperately hard it can be.

Oh - definitely definitely definitely don’t take on any of her debt. There’s no legal or moral reason to do so.

At her age, with limited assets, odds are very good that she’ll qualify for services from the local Legal Services program. Every state has at least one, but each program determines their own priorities for which cases they will handle. At least, you should be able to get to free legal advice specific to her state.

I’d be worried about her living on her own (if that’s what she’s doing) given her “swiss cheesedness.”

As for assets, she has a pension (not a lump sum) and social security, but they’re not much because she retired at 62 and didn’t realize how much she would need to live on. She has a house in a retirement community that she got with a fixed 30 year mortgage when she was 65 (I was surprised). So she has the equity that she paid in in the last 10 years.

This situation seems like such a waste and I believe my Dad and I are facing the the fact that she’s not competent anymore.

Thank you and thank you Oakminster for the advice and I’ll look into getting a lawyer for her tomorrow.

My ex brother in law and his girlfriend are there, but they’re intermittently employed/unemployed and they’re having trouble getting on their feet. His girlfriend said she realizes that they have to start saving for the future, but the’re helping to pay the utilities for the time being. I think they were trying to tell me how bad she was getting mentally, joking that she was “losing it”, but when I talked to her on the phone she seemed like she was managing.

Getting legal advice is always a good idea, but in addition, maybe she could consult with one of the non-profit consumer credit counseling agencies.

Will someone be able to go with her to see a lawyer?

Good luck!

I’m very sorry to hear that. I agree that it’s time to call in professional help; both to try and untangle her financial mess, and also to make the call on her mental competence. If she is still mentally competent, I don’t think there will be much you’ll be able to do - privacy laws will probably prevent you from doing much on her behalf. About all you can do is take her to bankruptcy lawyers/debt counsellors. She may be able to work out an orderly re-payment of debt with the debt counsellors, where the credit card companies accept a re-payment plan.

I don’t mean to be callous, but unsecured debt like credit cards dies with the person who has it - do not, under any circumstances, get your finances tangled up with hers. No co-signed loans or anything like that.