Credit still matters as we age. Here’s how you can help parents or other older adults check in on theirs.

Conversations about money often require sensitivity and patience, especially when the person across the table is an older parent.

Some of us won’t need — or want — to get involved in someone else’s finances. But others may have to take an active role in helping an older parent manage their money. If that’s the case for you, don’t neglect a discussion about credit. Good credit matters throughout life, so any conversation you have with a parent should focus on building and maintaining healthy credit.

Here are five credit-related questions to ask older parents if you don’t know where to begin.

1. What’s your credit score?

Good credit scores can create opportunities and unlock lower interest rates, and they still matter even as we age. Maybe your parent wants to downsize to a new home or settle in a retirement community; having a good score can be advantageous in both scenarios.

Free credit scores are available from personal finance websites, credit card issuers and other financial institutions.

If their score is lower than they had hoped, develop a plan together for elevating it. Paying loan balances on time and using less than 30% of available credit can lift scores. Older parents with limited credit can open a secured credit card to help them build a credit history.

2. Have you reviewed your credit report?

In 2023, data compromises impacted more than 350 million Americans, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. Each data breach presents an opportunity for a bad actor to steal someone’s personal information, which can cause serious financial trouble for the victim. That’s why Liz Kishel, a certified financial planner at Modera Wealth Management in Atlanta, urges older people to examine their credit reports. The three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, offer a free credit report every week.

Signs of identity theft or fraud include credit cards you don’t recognize, discrepancies in loan balances on the report compared with your own records, misspelled names and unfamiliar addresses.

Identity theft victims can remove fraudulent debt and information from their credit report by submitting the following to the credit bureaus:

  • Proof of identity.
  • A letter listing fraudulent debts and information on the credit report.

3. Is your credit frozen?

People can and do recover from identity theft or fraud, but it’s not always easy. Kishel’s advice: Freeze your credit to prevent fraud or theft from happening in the first place. When your credit is frozen, it becomes inaccessible to fraudsters who may want to open lines of credit in your name. For maximum protection, freeze your credit report with all three credit bureaus.

“A lot of [older adults] have wonderful credit scores because of the age of their credit histories,” Kishel says. “Protect the good credit that you’ve fought so hard to build.”

4. Do you have your own credit card?

Older parents should have a credit account in their own name, and women may need to be especially mindful on this point. Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, lenders could deny loans to women without a male co-signer. As such, some older women don’t have their own credit history, leaving them financially vulnerable.

It can be difficult to distinguish the primary or the authorized user on a credit card. Parents could be joint owners, or one could be the primary owner and the other an authorized user. Call the issuer of the card if you’re not sure.

Advise the parent with authorized user status to get their own card. If the account owner dies or removes the authorized user from the card, all account activity is erased from the authorized user’s credit report. That erasure could damage the authorized user’s credit if the account was kept in pristine condition because all of that good credit history goes away.

5. How are you paying off credit card debt?

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s February 2024 Household Debt and Credit Report, 19% of debt held by Americans ages 60-69 was credit card debt and it was 14% for those 70 and older. While many older parents live on fixed incomes, it’s still possible to get out of debt.

A payoff strategy such as the avalanche method (paying off debts in order of highest to lowest interest rate) can infuse a sense of order and progress into the debt payoff journey. Getting another credit card can help pay down debt, too. Balance transfer cards take on debts from other lenders and make it easier to pay them off because they temporarily waive interest, some for a year or more.

Older parents who want professional financial help may benefit from working with a credit counselor, who can put them on a personalized debt management plan. To avoid getting back into debt, they may need to cut their expenses if they don’t plan to rejoin the workforce. The online database BenefitsCheckUp helps older adults find and apply for financial assistance programs to subsidize the costs of medical care and utilities, for example.