This is shocking, but it actually happened. I describe a real case, with names changed. The man involved was what we call an “elder orphan”. These are the ones with no kids, never married, or widowed and they do not have anyone paying much attention to them as they age. They are vulnerable to predators. His case may be representative of what can easily happen when no one is watching.
The Elder Orphan
“Tony” age 87, widowed with no children, lived alone and took care of himself. But he was getting frail and it was getting hard to get the grocery shopping done. While at the market, a checker seemed to befriend him and asked if he needed help at home. He agreed that he did. What he didn’t know was that the checker, Mae, who had no caregiving experience, had targeted him. Almost immediately after offering to help, she moved into his house.
Mae swiftly got control over his life and finances. He had severe hip pain and needed dental work, but she refused to take him to the doctor or dentist. He needed food, but she deprived him until he did as she demanded, giving her Power of Attorney. She went so far as to force him to marry her, taking him to another city, and then threatening to dump him there unless he married her secretly.
As his “wife” Mae seized his bank accounts, pension deposits, safe deposit box with gold in it, and all of his valuables. She isolated him from everyone who knew him. He was cut off for years. She hit him, left him in ragged clothing and threw his dog against the wall. He was terrified. When she was out of the house one day, he made a desperate call to his nephew, with whom he had been close in years back. He begged for help. The nephew sprang into action. He summoned his 3 siblings, including one out of state, and together, they rescued Uncle Tony and brought him home. At AgingParents.com, Tony’s nephew called for advice about what to do. We referred him to a competent lawyer who got an emergency order to remove the “wife” from his home. They began proceedings to annul the coerced marriage. Mae had to be escorted out by the police, who initially resisted because Tony and the caregiver were married. It was stunning how the police believed the evil caregiver and not Tony nor his family members. The nieces and nephews gave the police all the awful details. Still they balked at removing Mae. It took a court order to get her out. His two capable nieces hired workers to clean the filthy house, do needed repairs, get Uncle Tony to the dentist and doctor and schedule him for hip surgery. One left her out of state home and moved in with her uncle to protect him for good.
My role at AgingParents.com was to help the family decide what to do in the crisis and find a litigator immediately. They got that. The attorney also filed an elder abuse lawsuit against Mae. She had stolen almost everything Tony had, amounting to over $700,000, but she did not get his valuable home. The pension thefts stopped with other legal steps to remove her from all of his accounts.
Tony was fortunate that he had a good relationship with his nephew, despite the fact that their contact before the crisis was infrequent. And his nephew had the money to pay for both my initial consult and attorneys to file papers in court. Not everyone has a contact who can help that way. His nieces stepped up together to attend to his medical needs, get his home cleaned up and repaired and to ensure his safety with professional caregivers. He is safe at this time and Mae will never have access to him again. Lawsuits are pending. Tony may never get his money or valuables back. Most sickening is that the police took no action against Mae. They never prosecuted her. Civil lawsuits, paid for by family, are the only consequence to her horrible abuse.
Tony is like many other frail elders with advancing age who are easy targets for criminals. Mae must have had an eye on him for awhile at the grocery store and she saw her opportunity. If you have an aging family member who is an elder orphan or who has adult children who are not capable of looking out for them, beware. Here are five things you can do, even from afar:
- Check in regularly. Call often, email or visit if it is safe to do so. Ask questions about how your elders are managing in their daily lives.
- Encourage any elder, whether alone or not, to only hire caregivers from a licensed agency. Agencies at least do some screening of their workers. They are bonded and insured. Someone is watching the worker.
- Do an online multi-state background check on anyone coming into the elder’s home to work. You can see a criminal history. Elders may not be capable of doing that research.
- Encourage your elder to get advice from an estate planning attorney to carefully choose someone to be in charge of their finances if they can’t do it alone anymore. That means appointing a valid Power of Attorney.
- Put yourself in that elder orphan’s shoes. Wouldn’t most of us do well to have someone to watch out for us as we age and lose some abilities? Think of how it looks from the elder’s point of view. Offer help if you can or find another to help if you can’t.
Brutal people taking advantage of elders, as Mae did are out there looking for victims. We can all raise our awareness of this and extend ourselves to help keep elder orphans safe. Imagine that these elders could be ourselves a few years down the road.
Related: Is Your Aging Parent Trusting the Wrong Financial Advisor?