How to stop being the family ATM

If you want someone to stop asking you for money, the worst thing you can do is say no and then give in after persistent pleading.

Such “intermittent reinforcement” — granting a reward after an unpredictable number of requests — makes it more likely the person will ask for another handout than if you just said yes at the start, says Brad Klontz, a certified financial planner and psychologist in Lihue, Hawaii, who researches financial psychology. It’s the same dynamic that lures people to slot machines and lotteries.

Klontz doesn’t actually advise giving in. But he says understanding the psychology on both sides of what he calls “financial enabling” can help people change their behavior.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how to stop financially enabling your family.

Q&A: To help elderly dad hold off mooching adult kids, call in the experts

Dear Liz: My dad, age 90, needs personal care and I am trying to get him to move out of his house to a senior residential place. He is in agreement, but it is taking a long time to make this happen. He owns his home free and clear and, along with the sale of his home, has enough financial assets to cover these costs.

The problem is my two sisters’ husbands, who overspend and are in debt. These two guys continue to pressure my sisters to ask my dad for money for such things as their mortgages, expenses for their children and credit card debt. My sisters are not just starting out — they are in their 50s! Not only that, when I ask them for help with our dad, they flake out on me. I’ve told them that the financial assistance can’t continue because Dad will need his money to pay for his care.

I feel that my sisters’ and their husbands’ behavior is senior financial abuse. I read that this situation happens a lot in families, where the kids will milk an elderly, wealthy, sympathetic parent or grandparent, sometimes draining their savings. Or one dysfunctional sibling with take financial advantage of a parent, while other siblings in the family struggle with making ends meet. In our family, both my sisters have children, so my dad feels a soft spot for helping them out. I am single, no children, and I am treated differently. I do struggle to make ends meet. My dad is sometimes even reluctant to reimburse me $20 for gas that I spend driving him around and doing shopping and errands.

I’m trying to remain on good terms with my sisters but it is getting tough. Is there any financial advice or references you can give in my situation?

Answer: You’re right that most financial abuse of the elderly is committed by people close to the person, typically family, friends or caregivers. The toll isn’t small, either. A survey by Allianz Life Insurance Company found that the average victim lost $30,000 and 1 in 10 lost more than $100,000.

Family members may not see what they’re doing as abuse. They may think that they “deserve” the money or that it’s some kind of advance on a future inheritance. They also know that Dad just can’t say no and will continue to press him for money as long as they’re allowed to do so.

You and your dad should consult an elder law attorney to discuss ways your dad can be protected against predators. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Elder Law Attorneys at naela.org, and the attorney can discuss your options.

One obvious solution would be for Dad to hand over his checkbook to you, which would give you the unpleasant job of standing up to your brothers-in-law. You’re certainly in a better position to do so than your elderly father, but he may not be willing to give up control or you may not want the job.

Another option is hiring third parties. Daily money managers provide personal finance and bookkeeping services to elderly clients. They can keep a watchful eye on transactions and spot signs of fraud. You can get referrals from the the American Assn. of Daily Money Managers at aadmm.com. Hiring a geriatric care manager also could be a good move. The manager could assess your father’s health, living and financial situations and help craft a plan to help him move forward. Referrals are available from the Aging Life Care Assn. at aginglifecare.org.

Q&A: Helping a mentally ill family member

Dear Liz: I want to offer some bit of advice to the woman with the mentally ill, homeless son. She didn’t say which state he lives in, and I’m guessing it’s not California. There are so many wonderful programs here. I did help a woman my age (late 40s at that time) get off the street by convincing her to let me drive her to PATH (People Assisting the Homeless). It took a few tries but she finally got into my car. PATH took over after that. She has been on Supplemental Security Income for years and lives in a low-income housing tax credit building. Tell the mother that there are social workers dedicated just to representing people that are both homeless and mentally ill in all 50 states. There is also subsidized housing available in all 50 states. She just needs to put her worry into action to find the right social worker or organization. They have the know-how to proceed and help her son. I’m not saying that this will be easy, but she will feel better if she persists in trying to find the right resources for her son and it just might work.

Answer: Thank you for suggesting PATH as a possible solution for homeless people in Southern California. The mother thought there was no help available in the state where her son lives, but every state has at least a few programs for the mentally ill. Getting low-income housing is another matter because many programs have far more applicants than availability.

The mother can certainly make inquiries and suggest possible solutions for her son. But she still needs to set boundaries in how much time and money she dedicates to his problems. She is elderly, on a limited income and several states away from her son. She deserves a little peace at the end of her life, which may mean making peace with the idea that his fate is not in her hands.

Q&A: How to help family while on a limited budget

Dear Liz: My son, who is almost 50, is mentally and emotionally challenged. He has been unemployed and homeless for years. Although not a criminal, he’s been in jail a few times because of his explosive, combative nature. There seems to be no help for him in the state where he lives. I do send a few dollars for his basic needs when I can, but must be careful with my budget. Do you have any tips that might be helpful in this situation?

Answer: You’re living with a heartbreaking situation. You want to help, but given your age and financial circumstances your ability to do so is limited. Unless you set some boundaries, you could run through your savings and possibly wind up homeless yourself.

You’ll find some helpful resources at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org), which offers information and, in many locations, support groups for families. Another place to find comfort, insights and suggestions would be a 12-step group for co-dependency, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous (www.coda.org), Al-Anon (www.al-anon.org) and Nar-Anon (www.nar-anon.org). Substance abuse often accompanies mental illness, so you may find it helpful to talk to others who have dealt with problem drinkers (Al-Anon) or addicts (Nar-Anon).

Every state has at least some resources for the mentally ill. You can start your search at MentalHealth.gov to see what might be available where your son lives and let him know the options. But as the members of any support group will tell you, you cannot fix another human being or force him to change. What you can do is to take care of yourself.