Every time I hear another story of a kind elderly lady sending her life savings to that desperate father who just needs to keep the heat on in his imaginary shanty and buy diapers for his non-existent children, I conjure the image of stuffing him in my trunk, pulling his bound body out in front of a retirement home, and letting old ladies beat him within an inch of his life with their walkers and canes. [It should go without saying that I wouldn’t actually do that, but just to be sure, here is the disclaimer.]
A second shyster, just as threatening to grandma’s retirement account, but more legitimate in the eyes of the law, could wreak similar havoc. They will set up a website for her that she will never even visit. They draft documents for a business she will never operate. They sign her up for the pickle of the month club. They get her to qualify for a small business loan for a shadow business that exists only on paper and briefly in her mind. As long as they get their commission, grandma can go f*** herself. And f*** herself she will, along with your inheritance.
Dementia is not a prerequisite for gullibility. The young and presumably mentally competent fall for many of the above scams. I know one particular mom who in her middle age on two separate occasions bought thousand-dollar vacuum cleaners from sweet talking young men arriving on her porch and promising micron-pure air and a lifetime supply of bags. They dropped the vacuums and disappeared into the night. And of course, it’s not just moms. Grandpa with misfiring neurons, a load of microscopic plaques, and holes in his brain doesn’t stand a chance either.
Dementia and its lesser cousin, mild cognitive impairment, are not like catching a cold. They are often insidious, progressing over weeks to years until grandpa finally triggers our “that’s not right” response. By then, the frog has already boiled in the pot. To add insult to injury, a little bout of depression could cause grandpa to figuratively and actually fall of the edge of a cliff. It takes a lifetime to build financial security and a few seconds to annihilate it.
Obviously, grandma’s bank account is not the only thing we are worried about. Aging and end of life decisions all to frequently happen at the last minute when emotions are high and agreement is fleeting. The answer to this is not an answer. It is an Answer Generating Machine: a process with many possible answers. This process can also result in answers to many questions we should have already asked ourselves, but haven’t. The essence of this process is to plan now and ask questions later. If you build it, they will come.
Here’s some advice on how to start, but it is up to each family to take it from here. The point is to let grandma plan not to f*** herself while the family is not reeling from finding her retirement fund cashed in and bank account plundered after trying to figure out how to get her electricity turned back on, and someone out to the house to pull out the soaked carpet and drywall, while a plumber patches the burst frozen pipes.
7 suggestions to keep grandma from f***ing herself:
- Talk about it. If people want to avoid talking about it, annoy them until they will talk about it. Make an official date. This is the most essential step and often the thing nobody wants to do. Someone or some group needs to instigate and propagate discussion. Start planning your own aging in your 20s. Honestly, it’s never too early to start, and the earlier you start, to easier it will be to come to agreements in the future.
- Include all stakeholders. Include everyone with a personal interest who is able to think about what is discussed, even children (they won’t know how to do this if you don’t show them). This way, you won’t have to rehash topics as many times and you’ll be able to better anticipate future mayhem.
- Have a formal process. The ad hoc discussion you have with your friends and family is not sufficient for good decision making. It may even leave you with a false sense of comfort that a decision has been/can be made. If someone refuses to be a part of the process, have it without them, even if they are the person being discussed. Then do it all again if you have to.
- Include time for everybody to talk without interruption. Don’t forget the “without interruption” part. Set a 10 minute, 30 minute, or what-ever timer for each speaker. Gently remind interrupters they will have time to speak. Now that we are Zoom experts, you can mute the a-holes mics.
- Debate the plan openly. Make time for some heated discussion after everyone has had time to speak uninterrupted. This may also need a timer for each topic. It’s OK to list a topic as “undecided.” Move on.
- Make a tentative plan. All plans are tentative plans. Even if you don’t have all the information you think you need, a plan is essential. It is the point of the exercise. Even if the plan is only to reassess the plan in a month, make that plan.
- Ask everyone to restate the plan in their own words. It is amazing how often people come to an agreement, but don’t actually agree on much. This is a way to expose kinks in the agreement hose.
If you implement the above and it doesn’t seem to be working, congratulations! You are working with humans. Try again. Every iteration can result in a little more clarity and a little less chance someone will sneak in and take grandma for the ride of her life. If in the end you fail, then grandma was f***ed before she had a chance to f*** herself.