Your parent(s) could be a victim of a very sad type of scam that preys on lonely, older people. After reading an article about how unscrupulous people form ‘relationships’ only to extract money from wealthy seniors, I feel compelled to tell a story that occurred to a friend of my mother.
Mom’s friend – I’ll call her Lillian – was the daughter of a wealthy newspaper mogul, who’s dear husband died at an early age, leaving her with quite a bit of money from their combined fortunes. She had one daughter, who married well, but unfortunately, died in her early forties. Similarly, my mother was only 18 when her own young mother died. The two women enjoyed each others’ company for many, many years. “Compensation” was how my mother often phrased it. Lillian was the loving ‘mother’ she had never known, and Lillian had a ‘daughter’ to come visit during those sad and solitary months of grief. When my father died in 1986, their bond grew even stronger and at 59 and 79, they called themselves, “The Merry Widows.”
Lillian’s son-in-law, who was a jet-setting businessman, rarely had time for her other than the obligatory holiday, Mother’s Day and birthday phone calls. I suppose he figured that her gardener and maid were there for company, so he didn’t need to concern himself. Her grand-daughter, raised in the lap of luxury, was used to Christmas ski trips in Switzerland and fast Italian cars, but like so many grandchildren, thought little about what it’s like to be all alone, waiting for visits and phone calls that never come. On the rare occasions she did stop to see Lillian, it was to peruse her jewelry and eye the valuable antiques that would one day bring a fortune. “Oh, Grammy,” she once said. “I’d so much rather have this necklace on me while it is still warm from your body! Won’t you give it to me now?”
At the time, I was only in my thirties and busy with my own working life, children, and divorce. I never really thought much about the things my mother told me, for the most part only being grateful that she had such a dear friend to share time with. Mom drove, Lillian did not, so they would accompany one another to church and share lunch together afterwards. They would spend a little time each day on the phone and even write letters to one another – a lovely custom people had in the era before the Internet and social media.
Around then I started calling mom once a day from the office to make sure she was all right. Frankly, I never really thought to do it prior to her suggesting it. Bad me! But then I started calling others too, abruptly realizing that any of us ‘singletons’ could take a bad fall and no one would know about it till the next morning when we might fail to show up for work.
I half listened to the stories mom told me about Lillian’s father being invited to the White House by special messengers wearing livery and white gloves. Mom loved to hear Lillian tell the stories about her Debutantes Ball and the cotillions she attended as a young girl. The two of them dressed up in formal attire to watch the Royal Wedding on TV in 1981. They shared beautiful luncheons on fine English Bone China served by Lillian’s ‘girl,’ and talked about All Things English, for they were both Anglophiles down to their DNA.
It was this last item that began the trouble.
I wish I had paid more attention, but it seems to me that the granddaughter went off to college, and perhaps Lillian’s own health began to deteriorate. It seems that Lillian had a new friend in England that often called, and she seemed to be less available than usual. This saddened my mother at first, but then she realized that this ‘friend’ was a young man. Lillian was in her 90’s, and her young man was sending her roses, gifts of antique books of poetry, and little tokens of affection. My mother was incredulous when she relayed to me that Lillian was acting like a young woman in love. I’ll call him James, laughed at her jokes, listened attentively to her stories, and told her she was the most interesting woman he had ever come across. He asked for a photo of her, which she gladly sent, and he went on to tell her how he put it in a silver frame next to his bed so that he could see it each evening and every morning when he first awoke.
She was in heaven, and enjoying her ‘senior crush.’ Mother was afraid to say anything, but told me she was sure Lillian was getting senile. I asked if she was able to contact the son-in-law or granddaughter to see if they could check things out. I’m not sure what happened after that, but a few months later, Lillian passed on.
It seems that what Lillian didn’t tell my mother was that her admirer was systematically requesting funds – small bits at first, but then larger and larger amounts. Lillian wanted to see him, and sent him money for a First Class ticket, but he said that he had to cancel because something had gone wrong with his heating. She told him to use the money for the repair. He said it was more extensive than just a repair. Lillian was about to wire him a check for a large sum of money to upgrade the heating system in his ‘estate.’ It was at this point that someone stepped in – I have no idea who it was…perhaps the maid. But I do know that Lillian was heartbroken. She had so enjoyed her little charade, and was probably resentful that it was not only manipulative and unscrupulous, but that it was over. She hadn’t had that sort of attention in a very long while.
Mom and I never spoke of it again, but when I hear of seniors – not only wealthy widows and widowers, but ordinary people – being schemed out of their assets by callers who threaten them by pretending to be the IRS or some other collection agency or charity (see Licensed Attorney Takes on IRS Phone Call), I get really mad. It’s not just pyramid schemes like Bernie Madoff, but little ‘mom and pop’ operations that try to wheedle or scare people into giving credit card numbers, bank account routing numbers, personal information, etc.
So be on the lookout. Is there someone living near you, or even someone in your family who seems perfectly content, that you could ‘check up’ on? Elders are so vulnerable. They don’t understand all this electronic banking stuff. They’re used to shopping in brick and mortar stores with real cash and sending their utility payments via check. We must realize that there comes a point when we have to start taking over parent-like duties — well before we begin to consider caregiving and nursing homes for our loved ones.
Tell them about call blocking, and make sure they know that they will NEVER receive calls from the IRS claiming that they owe money. Ensure that no one takes mailgram payment or WalMart or Target gift cards (they often stress that they don’t take credit card or bank numbers). Impress on them that telemarketers are only trying to get money into their pockets – even with contributions that sound reasonable. Make them aware that there are nasty people who will profess to be a kind financial advisor, a concerned healthcare practitioner, an interested romantic, or a long-forgotten relative. (Remember Downton Abbey? It doesn’t just happen to the rich.) Watch that repairmen don’t take advantage of them, as one did to my mother. She was afraid to tell me that she had been hoodwinked to the tune of several hundred dollars. She didn’t want me to think she was getting old and senile.
The Internet can be our friend when it comes to aging parents. We can check up on their accounts online. We can call the phone company and set them up with NoMoRoBo, which is a service also available for cell phones, that redirects nuisance calls to a data center after only one ring.
After that bit with the plumber, I started keeping an eye (silently) on my mother’s credit card and bank accounts. She willingly asked for my help as she watched me fill out paper checks which she would then sign. She realized that it was necessary to have someone supervising her, and I saw how important it was for her to take part in the process, rather than just paying everything electronically on her behalf.
Like the training wheels our parents gave us to learn to ride a bike, we have to help them ‘unlearn’ taking full charge of their lives so that when the day comes that we take over all the responsibilities, no one will be surprised.