Guarding Grandma’s Gold


When I first started working professionally with older people (in the early 80s) I had few, if any preconceptions. Older people are just like anyone else; they’d just lived longer. For the most part this is true.

But, horrifyingly, there is a significantly higher percentage of older people who are victims of scams and scalawags. Why? For one thing there is the rising rate of dementia as we age. Long before clear symptoms emerge, judgment and decision-making falter. Ronald Reagan is often cited as an example.

Adult children of frail parents can be the worst culprits—they know where the gold is. Often the primary asset is the home. Keep a close eye on the executor of the will, usually an adult child. It may be prudent to have the will designate a professional fiduciary as executor, rather than a son or daughter.

While older people are actually less often subject to violent crime, those who are 65 and up may be more often targeted for financial crime. Indeed According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the National Crime Victim Statistics (NCVS) reveals that, from 1994 to 2005, violent crime rates declined, reaching the lowest levels ever recorded. Property crimes continue to decline as well.

But that email from Nigeria that no one takes seriously. Someone is believing it and it may be your mom. I’ve seen enough evidence firsthand that increased safeguards and watchdogs may be prudent as a person ages.

What specifically can you do? Grandma has right to spend her money however she likes. But she will not like being swindled. Have a serious difficult discussion with all family, grandma included.

One suggestion is a joint bank account. Especially since we all have easy access to statements via on-line banking, if your family member agrees, you can share any account, or even just get permission to use the login and password to keep an eye on things. But don’t forget crime happens within friends and family as well as from strangers.

I knew one man who had contributed a large amount to a joint account with his father, who was in financial need. One day it was all gone and he never got it back!

Another safeguard could be a trusted financial professional such as a CPA, tax accountant, banker, fiduciary, or advisor that has access to all information and participates in a mutual agreement to watch on a regular basis for any odd withdrawals. Again, this could backfire.

Banks are hesitant to interfere and there are some ethical and legal obligations not to question clients’ decisions. I knew a woman in her 90s who gave away tens of thousands of dollars to phone scams. When her nephews found out she had squandered over $50,000 in less than a year, they initiated guardianship and put her in a nursing home, where she subsisted for almost a year of a dreadful life.

Guardianship is an expensive and humiliating process and only to be used as an absolute last resort.

But really really bad things happen and it is prudent to ponder what can best be done to prevent disaster while still respecting autonomy and choice.

Published by jeannettefranks

Jeannette Franks, PhD, is a passionate gerontologist and for over 20 years has taught ethics, grief and loss, and courses on geriatrics and gerontology for the University of Washington. Franks' most recent book is, To Move or To Stay Put: A Guide for Your Last Decades. Look for it now on the University Bookstore website It is also available at Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge. Franks previously published a definitive guide to independent and assisted living titled Washington Retirement Options, and often speaks on retirement options, disability issues, end-of-life issues and is an advocate for accessibility. She has a goal of making Bainbridge an elder-friendly community and is available to groups and families to discuss these issues. She served for nine years on the Kitsap County Advisory Council on Aging and Long-term Care. She also has the privilege of working in a small way for the past 15 years with the Suquamish tribal elders.

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