Thursday, September 20, 2012

A cautionary tale

If you have an elderly relative and at some point a person or situation strikes you as a red flag, for Pete's sake, do something about it. Don't just write it off to your own paranoia or timidity or assumption that it's someone else's responsibility to deal with. Because that shit's going to blow up on you, and then you'll have a much bigger, much more painful mess to clean up.

I speak from experience.

Follow: My maternal grandmother is 91 years old, about to turn 92. She's functionally illiterate, what math and reading skills she'd had throughout her life undone by fading eyesight and an increasingly addled mental state. But she's always been a strong personality, set in her ways, with an independent streak a mile wide. Her contempt for nursing homes, or "assisted living facilities," is epic. So this is a woman nobody in the family wants to cross, as she will let you have it with both barrels.

Around the beginning of 2009, she got a new renter on a 17-acre property she owns. Nobody thought much of it at the time, because she's always renting out the old houses she owns. But something was different with this guy. Grandma talked of him incessantly whenever we visited or called on the phone. She talked about his big business plans and how different people were doing him wrong. By that Christmas, we discovered he's opened a barbecue restaurant in town that promptly failed, losing all the money he'd invested in it. Money which he'd gotten from my grandmother. Not only that, but she'd signed contracts with service providers for stuff like credit card readers and whatnot which weren't tied to the restaurant at all, but rather a set, multi-year time frame. Which meant the monthly bills had to be paid regardless of the success or failure of the business. This fellow told her to throw away all those bills. She had some serious collection agency action going on, jeopardizing her otherwise sterling credit rating. I intervened, negotiated a settlement, and Grandma was briefly surprised and upset to discover how much she was on the hook for. But the instant I placed the blame on her renter and his bad advice, she got very defensive of him, forcefully enough to make me back off. I saw this fellow once during this time--a very slick-dressing guy, almost a cartoon, really--and let him know I was not happy having to clean up after his mess. Lots of my relatives were also concerned about the situation, but not enough to risk crossing Grandma. I guess we were all pretty much afraid of her, as much as we loved her and worried about her. The only way to separate her from this guy would be to have her declared incompetent to make decisions (which she obviously was) and set up a guardianship. Absolutely none of us was willing to take that step, partly because Grandma would hate us from that point on for taking away her independence, but mostly because nobody wanted to accept that kind of responsibility. There were some mumbled comments like "Maybe he's learned his lesson" and lots of crossed fingers that the problem would somehow solve itself.

Fast forward to today. The problem hasn't magically solved itself. In fact, it's gotten far, far worse. This guy, instead of learning his lesson, has doubled down on exploiting Grandma for all she's got. That 17 acres of land he was renting? He had her sign a warranty deed transferring ownership to him. He's represented himself as her son in legal matters. He's closed her bank accounts and transferred all of her savings to God knows where. He's driving a brand-new, $40,0000 pickup and opening a new restaurant. Plus, he's waving around Power of Attorney for her. Grandma doesn't really get any of this, but she is pretty clear on the idea that we're spreading lies about this great humanitarian who is bleeding her dry. I figure there's a secret will hidden away somewhere giving everything that's left to him. I mean, that's about the only outrage not currently on the table.

We've filed criminal charges and gotten Adult Protective Services involved, but really, the damage has been done. It'll take forever to untangle this mess, and once we do, there won't be anything left. Grandma (and Grandpa, before he died) grew up during the Depression and worked hard to save up for a comfortable retirement. It's going to be tough explaining to her how she's got nothing left for her final years because she gave it all away to a con artists we were all too chickenshit to throw out on his ass when we should have.

Don't make this same mistake. Scammers don't learn their lesson--anything less than scorched earth they view as a sign of weakness and an invitation to continue their schemes.

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