Stealing money or property from an elder takes a ‘special’ kind of person. Would you do it? It may surprise you to learn that over 10% of the elderly become a victim of financial exploitation or theft of property. I have learned now to expect anything and be surprised by nothing. But the details of a recent referral have reminded me of the harm this exploitation can cause the elder. Here’s the story:
Andy visited the casino to occupy his time and be with people. Widowed for 5 years, he was lonely. This 80 year old was fit, handsome and loved the companionship of a pretty lady. He met Mary, a 55 year old casino housekeeper, and was hooked – he gave her money to gamble and the relationship progressed to Andy paying Mary’s rent and buying her a new car. When Andy could no longer drive, Mary moved in with him. Andy had no children. When his sister Kathleen came for a visit she was surprised to find Andy talking of marriage and she noticed a serious loss of memory and confusion. Concerned, Kathleen asked Andy if she could see his bank statements and records on his investments. Andy had put Mary’s name on his accounts. Over $75,000 of savings were gone, the house was now willed to Mary, and Andy had given all of his deceased wife’s jewelry to his young companion/caregiver.
This story is not uncommon. Elders who live alone, with family far away, are easy prey to others who will exploit their need for companionship. A person who sits alone all day, day after day, with nothing to engage their interest but a television, longs for a personal exchange with a human being. When they begin to need assistance in the home for cleaning, shopping, cooking or personal care, they are easy prey to a helper who is looking for their next victim.
Ellen moved to a 55Plus retirement village when she was 75 and recently widowed. Her three daughters lived half a continent away. She suffered a light stroke at 82, returning to her apartment after rehabilitation but in need of daily assistance with cooking, bathing and dressing. Ellen knew of a woman who helped others in her building and hired her. Over time Ellen’s daughters grew concerned with their mother’s expressions of dependence and attachment to this caregiver and hired a local geriatric social worker to assess both their mother’s needs for care and her relationship with this caregiver. What was found was not unusual. Ellen praised her caregiver, Anna, while criticizing her daughters for their busy lives and unwillingness to be involved in her life. Every sentence praised Anna while condemning her family. The assessment found that Anna was paid $1500 per month for her assistance to Ellen which equaled $50 per hour for the actual services she provided. She often did not show up to provide services at all, leaving Ellen alone and unable to dress or have adequate nutrition. Ellen became so emotionally dependent on Anna that she was afraid to complain for fear of losing Anna’s attentions. At the end of this relationship, Ellen was hurt knowing that Anna had used her. Emotional dependence is not a cognitive impairment, it is a personal tragedy.
Northwest Arkansas is home to many aging who have sought this beautiful area to retire. Today there are many of the old-old who moved here to enjoy golf, fishing, hiking and all that we have to offer in the Ozarks. How sad that the easy, relaxing environment they sought for their ‘golden years’ also separated them from family and placed them at risk for loss. With the onset of dementia, it is often difficult for close family members to convince a mother or father that they are being used and exploited. Fear of being regarded as incompetent make many aging mothers and fathers guarded in what activities they reveal to an adult son or daughter.
Vern knew he couldn’t stay on his ranch alone much longer. At 86 he worried about falls and couldn’t make repairs that were so needed. But he didn’t want to ever leave the home he built for he and his wife of over 50 years. He had even thought of killing himself rather than ever go to a home for care. When he was asked by Bill to give him a place to live in exchange for work he thought this was the answer to all his worries. And during the first months Bill was a great companion and worker, fixing the fence and gates, doing the grocery shopping and helping with the cooking and trips to the doctor. Vern even told his children how happy he was to be able to stay in his country home – they didn‘t need to worry! But then Bill asked for $2,000 a month to provide care for Vern, and when he had the money he started disappearing for two or three days at a time with Vern’s truck. The days Bill was gone terrified Vern that he would be left without help. His fear led to giving Bill $3,000 a month, the title to the truck, with one full day off a week, plus his room and board. Then Bill disappeared for more days. At pay time, Bill manipulated Vern for more money. Then he asked for the title on his late model Jeep. After two years, Vern was totally dependent on Bill for food and help to get dressed and bathe. He often sat in one chair all day, soiled and hungry. He couldn’t tell his children how he lived in fear of being alone, and he couldn’t let Bill go. What would he do without him?
Fear of being taken from a home environment and moved to a care facility can keep an elder dependent on exploitive and negligent caregivers. Most of these caregivers are not professional, trained caregivers but individuals who have learned that befriending an elder alone can lead to easy profit.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
If you have a family member who lives alone, make it your business to learn who comes into their home and why. Are they a volunteer from the church or organization, and if so, make a call to learn about their services. Are they a neighbor? Give that neighbor a call to thank them and to learn more about what they see in the home of your family member.
Not everyone can travel frequently to check on parents and loved ones. A geriatric care manager can now be found in most areas. The expense of a regular home visit to assess needs for care and to make certain your family member is safe is small compared to the losses many experience. Go to www.caremanager.org to find a professional geriatric care manager in the area of your loved one.
Sara Cain-Bartlett is a former Program Manager for Faith in Action, a service of WRMC providing volunteers to assist the aging homebound who live alone in NW Arkansas.
Sara Cain-Bartlett, MSW, LCSW, C-ASWCM 479-521-4406 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org