Filing for Seniors 101


You are starting to help your 85 year-old mother with her finances. With the convenience of online banking, you can do most of the work easily, even though you live across the country. When you come to visit, you see that there are piles of paper everywhere. She agrees that you can get rid of unneeded documents and set up a system for active files. What is the best way to set up the files so she can find things when you are not there?

There are no magical filing systems. Some are impressive looking, with color coded, fancy folders, and need written instructions for how to use them. Some systems are simple like regular manila folders in a milk crate. What none of them will do is file the paper for your mom or pull the documents out when she needs them. If she can’t use the system, it is worthless, and you will spend many frustrating hours on the phone trying to help her find things.

If you are setting up or improving upon an old filing system for your older parent to use, consider these tips:

  1. Label clearly. Write the labels using a black Sharpie with a medium or wider tip. Older eyes need large, clear print.

  2. File it where she will look for it. Ask your mom where she would look for a specific document. One document could be filed under many categories. For example, your Geico insurance policy for your Toyota could be filed under: Geico, Car, Auto, Toyota or Insurance. There is no single correct category, so put it where she is most likely to look for it.

  3. File alphabetically. The alphabet is stored in most people’s long term memory and remains available as a tool for helping seniors find things. They may forget that the red folders are for medical documents, the green for financial and the yellow for home, but if you store the files in alphabetical order, they are unlikely to forget that.

  4. Remove envelopes. Discourage the habit of storing bills and other documents inside their envelopes as well as the practice of writing information such as the date paid and check number on the outside of the envelopes. In a filing system, documents that are folded take up significantly more room than unfolded documents and require the senior to open the envelope each time she wants to read what is inside. She may open several envelopes at once and then return the documents to the wrong envelopes. Instead, ask your mom to write the date paid and check number directly on the bill and then discard the envelope.

A good filing system can help a senior feel like she knows where things are and that she is in in control. At a time of life when control over many aspects of life is being handed over to others, setting up files so a senior can manage her own paperwork is a worthwhile endeavor.