Landina DeCarlo, 89, has been a widow for 20 years, and was financially independent for decades. But things changed when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a few years ago.
Her children handle her financial matters now, and her home is an assisted living center. The illness, which slowly erodes memory and abilities, also has required careful planning for DeCarlo's long-term care.
As many as 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer's, according to the National Institute on Aging. Unless the disease can be effectively treated or prevented, that number will rise with the aging population. The institute estimates that the number of people with Alzheimer's doubles every five years after age 65.
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's can be overwhelming, and many individuals and families are unprepared to deal with the consequences, financial and otherwise.
(Read more: Alzheimer's: Are we ready for the coming epidemic? )
"I didn't want her to go away—it was hard," said DeCarlo's daughter Rita Jones, sitting next to her mother on one of her daily visits to Sunrise Assisted Living, in Cresskill, N.J. "But the decision had to be done because it was getting too hard to take care of her at home."
Jones started handling her mother's day-to-day finances when it was clear the disease was impairing DeCarlo's cognitive skills. She and her siblings met to determine who would make financial and health-care choices for their mother, who was increasingly unable to make such decisions on her own. One of Jones' brothers was given power of attorney, and the family hired an elder-care lawyer.
In addition to doing their own research, many families supporting an Alzheimer's patient find it helpful to consult with a financial advisor.