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Tax Season Yields Clues Into Alzheimer's

Tax season may yield clues of Alzheimer's
As if forms weren't complex enough, those with disease may find them impossible

Jim Saye first realized his mother had Alzheimer's disease when he found her unfinished and error-riddled income tax forms spread across her table.

His father-in-law, before being diagnosed years later, had made so many mistakes in his tax forms that the Internal Revenue Service sent letters threatening to seize his property.

It was all a wake-up call for Saye, now on the board of directors for the Alzheimer's Association in Houston.

As this year's April 17 tax-filing deadline approaches, Saye and experts familiar with Alzheimer's say it's a good time to reach out to elderly family members who may be in the early stages of the dread disease.

"This," said Saye, "is a typical threshold moment for Alzheimer's families."

Tax time is daunting enough for the mentally acute. For people in the early throes of dementia, finding all the documents and receipts they need to complete the tedious IRS forms can be a near-impossible task.

About 4.5 million people nationwide, including 80,000 in Houston and Southeast Texas, suffer from Alzheimer's disease, according to the area's Alzheimer's Association. The brain disorder gradually destroys a person's memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate and carry out daily tasks.

Alzheimer's is fairly common among older people. According to the national Alzheimer's Association, one in 10 people older than 65 — and half of those older than 85 — are affected.

In the early stages, doctors say, family members may not even realize their loved one has the disease. People may put on a good social front and mask it, they say. However, there are definite clues, such as forgetting to pay bills, or misdosing their medications, or getting lost on their way to a familiar destination.

In Saye's case, the first clue was learning that his family members had failed to properly file their taxes.

Stephen McConnell, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the Alzheimer's Association, said that managing finances is often one of the earliest skills to be compromised by the disease.

"Many people with this disease are able to mask it. They have developed patterns and ways of getting by that can disguise the disease," said McConnell, whose office is in Washington, D.C. "What the tax filing does is it makes public to the IRS that there is a problem."

IRS officials say they have no idea how many people miss the deadline or file erroneous forms because of Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia.

They say they can waive penalties and collection actions if they are informed about the impairment.

The IRS also allows people to name a third-party designee on their Form 1040, or even file a separate form that designates a family member as a power of attorney.

"When these situations take place, we are extra-sensitive in addressing the problem," said William Sonnack, a taxpayer advocate in Houston's IRS office.

Carol Cantrell, a certified public accountant, said she has had elderly clients with failing memories show up at her office and tell her they don't know where all their tax information is.

They say they never received all their documents, or they lost them. It's especially troublesome if they don't have family members who can help.

Cantrell said she'll offer to go to their home and work with them, even help them search through canceled checks to determine the deductible contributions they've made to charities.

But the situation can get prickly. Some older folks don't like giving up their independence, Cantrell said, and their families can be supportive by offering to review their income tax forms or suggesting a trusted accountant. She often asks her elderly clients to waive confidentiality with their family members so she has someone else to talk to about financial matters.

"The kids need to get involved, and that's the hardest part," Cantrell said. "I don't care if they live in Dallas and their parents are here in Houston. You can't close your eyes to this forever."

Saye was able to step in and help with his mother's taxes. And he and his wife stopped the IRS from taking action against his father-in-law.

Had they not gotten involved, he said, the consequences could have been severe.

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