Advancing years – coupled with illness – often make us vulnerable to many challenges. If we have loved ones to help us cope and to offer protection against personal harm, this can be immensely reassuring. Sadly, some seniors – especially if they’re confronting major disabilities and gradually losing their sense of self-control or independence – often fall victim to others who insinuate themselves between the concerned family and the struggling father, mother or grandparent.
Because women tend to outlive men in Westernized nations, this particular situation can entail a gender imbalance. However, both males and females do become targets for the unscrupulous. Sadly, these unethical individuals usually gain the confidence of the victim through an appearance of friendship and good intentions. By the time family members become aware that something is awry, the relationship between predator and prey might be firmly established. It’s then very difficult to convince the elderly person that he or she is being conned.
This is frequently not a matter of mental incompetence but of misplaced trust. As we age, or face various hardships at any stage in our lives, we do need to feel that we’re the focus of someone else’s attention. We need to believe we’re highly valued and that we’ll receive assistance from those who know us best. Usually, in fact, we are important to our loved ones and we do get help as needed. Unfortunately, our adult children might well have jobs and families that take up much of their time. Spouses, too, might be feeling overwhelmed by the demands of caregiving and coping with their own ageing processes. They might not be aware that others are showing excessive and inappropriate interest in their partners.
Granted, elder abuse – and the kinds of scams that often accompany it – can also happen within families. This is a whole different topic. And there are many wonderful souls who visit seniors in nursing homes or at their own residences, assist them with everyday needs and genuinely want to make a positive difference. Heaven knows, we need these merciful angels! But my own concern is with total-to-near-strangers who materialize almost out of nowhere and gain the trust of their victims. Whether their intent is to acquire property, exploit financially or merely to interfere with the individual’s social and personal interactions, the results can be disastrous.
Con artists have no shame and will practise their deception without any qualms. But then there are those other folks who don’t understand the circumstances and honestly think they’re being kind and compassionate. They never stop to consider the impact their attention might be having on others who have been part of that senior’s life for many, many years. These people are, perhaps, more naive than malicious, but in the end they can do dreadful damage. If the person is undergoing medical treatment, usually the next-of-kin are the ones who understand each procedure and help to manage appointments, medications and so on. Most medical authorities want to deal with next-of-kin, such as spouses and/or grown children, or professionals such as nurses and Homecare providers. They’re not going to accept someone with no legal connections as an appropriate source of patient support.
When called to account for their actions, these so-called “friends” will typically protest. “But I was only trying to help.” “He loves going for drives.” “I’m just being a good neighbour.” Or – worst of all – “I don’t see any of YOU looking after her!”
At times, either party may misrepresent his/her marital status or familial ties. He or she might even play the “pity card” rather effectively. “Poor me – my wife is more like my sister now.” “Don’t worry; we’re separated.” “Our marriage has been dead for years.” “It’s OK, she (he) won’t mind as long as we’re just friends.” “He totally ignores me most of the time.” “My children never do anything for me.” And so on. Without actually having known this individual beforehand, the sympathetic listener might well be inclined to believe everything at face value. This can also occur in online relationships where the “details” can be slanted to fit the intention. Indeed, the devil is in those details when that’s the case.
It’s usually not hard to determine the truth. Separated or divorced? Ask to see proof – the papers themselves, or a document scan sent as an email attachment. Neglectful family? Check the Facebook page, if there is one, and see whether or not family members show up on it. Or make discreet inquiries around the community. She (or he) won’t mind? Then why not talk to him or her, make email contact or call and ask? If you’re reluctant to do that, perhaps you ought to question your own motives and then back away. And if there is no documentation of a marriage breakdown, it’s best to run. Fast!
Otherwise, such a “friendship” can quickly alienate a family from a loved one if that person is still living independently and has, in fact, not been estranged from those who care most. This is simply not fair.
Some opportunists will even claim to be affiliated with a particular religion that sincerely cares for the senior’s soul, even when it doesn’t. They’ll pray with him, visit him regularly, invite him to their church. Flattered, and unaware he’s being used for profit, he will respond with eagerness. Needless to say, there will be some tradeoff: salvation for donations. The relatives often have no idea this is going on. Countless elderly folks have been bilked out of their life savings by charlatans operating in the name of God. A valid and caring church will offer support to its adherents. A fake one will siphon away their money.
For partners and others responsible for the welfare of a vulnerable individual, here are a few warning signs that might indicate a problem:
– the appearance of a new “friend” or “companion” whom the family members don’t know very well, if at all
– the exclusion of family, by the above individual, from activities involving their loved one
– unusual generosity on the part of the senior when it comes to either money or time given to a stranger
– secretiveness and refusal to respond to questions about new or recent relationships
– unavailability for family events, or unexpected refusal to attend them
– increasing suspicion directed at loved ones over their concern for the situation
– hostility and resentment that appear to have little or no cause
– lack of communication through the usual channels (phone, email, texting, Facebook messages or whatever)
– loss of empathy with others who might also be facing hard times; self-absorption
– indifference to consequences, or inability to think ahead
– sudden and inexplicable interest in activities that have never before been important
I am the wife of a seriously ill senior. His disease has no cure and it will ultimately take him from us. Yes, my daughter and I occasionally find ourselves dealing with disruptions by those who don’t have his (or our family’s) best interests at heart. Sometimes there have been innocent approaches and other times, not so much. The trick is to know the difference! I’ve also had connections with other families that were torn apart by the machinations of a predator.
I hope that anyone in similar circumstances will find my reflections relevant. Some readers might even recognize their own stories here. They key is to remain vigilant. We have to speak up! If we don’t, who will?
Stand firm. We’re our loved one’s last and most reliable line of defence. He or she might not realize this, but we do.
Sonnet for a Not-So-Well-Meaning Stranger
You call yourself his “friend”; he names you thus
as well – and yet, my dear, you have not been
with him these thirty years or more; not seen
his weeping wounds, nor braved the night, to rush
down rainy back roads while he cries in pain.
Have never heard his doctor say “Cancer”;
his specialist sigh “ALS” – his answer:
“Thank you. I’ve lived my span. I can’t complain.”
You, madam, think a casual embrace
is somehow your entitlement to share
one more adventure with this man? His wife,
his daughter, and her little son must face
your interference? You were never there!
Just go away – wreck someone else’s life.
Brenda Levy Tate