By Susan Green
Observer correspondent

After his mother began experiencing short-term memory problems and his father spoke of feeling “cloudy,” Eric Lazarus sensed it was time to make some changes.

The 63-year-old Burlington resident, whose suburban New York parents moved to a Miami independent living complex in 2001, embarked on a path familiar to many baby boomers. Along with one of his brothers, he assumed responsibility for his parents’ finances.

Gustav and Sally Lazarus, both nonagenarians, were essentially ready to turn over the reins.

“My father had some trouble focusing,” their son explained. “I told him, ‘You’re with me, kid.’ I wanted to assure him that I would fill in whatever ways were necessary. He was hugely relieved.”

Not every family undergoes as smooth a transition when faced with such decisions. And not every elderly person automatically has someone to count on.

Some might turn to organizations like the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, or CVAA, which matches fixed-income clients facing challenges such as dementia with volunteers recommended by the U.S. Social Security Administration. These individuals must cite references and undergo a security clearance.

Seniors with more significant resources who acknowledge the need for help frequently can afford to hire a professional.

Robyn Young of Williston just happens to handle both roles. Since late 2004, she has been the CVAA’s “representative payee” for Anita, a Winooski woman with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I receive and pay her bills, first checking that they’re accurate, make sure she has money for groceries and do the paperwork for her benefits,” said Young, who also manages finances for private clients with savings and investments.

“Most of those elderly clients are able to live on their own, but have no family nearby or don’t want them to be involved,” Young noted. “I’m usually referred by an investment advisor or estate attorney. They’re often tipped off when the person calls asking questions like, ‘What’s my bank balance?’ That can be a sign there’s difficulty keeping track of things.”

Dianne Pallmerine specializes in elder law. The Shelburne attorney tries to establish advance planning systems for people in all sorts of situations.

“They may be sharp enough, but it can just become physically exhausting to deal with financial matters,” Pallmerine said. “Or perhaps their hearing isn’t perfect for dealing with automated phone menus when calling banks or brokerages.”

She typically devises Durable Power of Attorney documents that appoint someone to make decisions about finances.

“Trusts are another way of managing assets, with a set of instructions,” Pallmerine pointed out. “A trustee can manage everything.”

A third approach administers all aspects of the client’s life under a court-supervised guardianship.

Many of these options carry some risk, according to Pallmerine.

“I warn clients that these measures are very powerful,” she said. “I meet with the elderly person more than once because everyone has bad days. I’m trying to determine if he or she is competent and has the legal ability to sign this document.”

When Eric Lazarus became immersed in his parents’ financial affairs, “they had a lot of confidence in me. That made it all very comfortable.”

Their move to Florida meant that much of his oversight was long-distance.

“At first, I visited them once a month and looked through their mail to pay the bills,” he said. “After a while, my father said, ‘Isn’t this ridiculous? You’re doing all the work and I’m signing the checks.’ So we went to a bank in the same building where they live and put my name on their accounts as a joint owner.”

Lazarus also arranged for the bills to come directly to him, whether online or via snail-mail. In order to cover them, he periodically had to transfer funds from his parents’ brokerage account into their checking account.

A computer program called Quicken allows Lazarus to reconcile the figures on a monthly basis.

“It’s all under control,” he said.

Under control, that is, until Lazarus realized that his father was continually withdrawing sums of cash from the bank.

“I couldn’t get him to stop, even though they didn’t go anywhere and only spent money on bingo,” he recalled. “I’d go through his clothing looking for it but, ultimately, $1,500 was never found. Maybe he was giving it away in tips. He didn’t necessarily remember.”