Fraud of the elderly hits home

From September 2006

I mentioned Mary in a recent post. I want to share a bit of her ongoing drama in hopes I can raise awareness of how vulnerable lonely old people can be.

Mary (not her real name) met Janet (again, not her real name) years ago, maybe as many as 30 years ago. They worked together and when Mary ran into some money troubles and she relied on Janet to help. This led to Janet taking on legal control of Mary’s money through a power of attorney. This is not a process that has government oversight — the onus is on the user to ensure that the person who has the POA is honest. You don’t even need a lawyer to establish a person as having POA where I am, in British Columbia. Just get forms off the Internet and away you go.

Mary has a brain injury stemming from a childhood fall. It messes with her memory somewhat, but I’ve learned that some memories are untouched by the injury. What she knows, she knows. Mary tells me she remembers driving to Victoria when her son was five or six, and he misbehaved. That was 30 years ago, according to her son’s current age.

Janet befriended Mary when she had no one else. Looking back, I’d say Mary was groomed for what happened later.

“I had a house, but I lost it,” Mary tells me. She couldn’t make the payments. Janet helped her through this, but I’m not sure how. I’m not sure of anything anymore, especially anything Mary tells me Janet told her.

I met Mary in February completely by chance, when we shared a hospital room. She gave me her cell phone number and I checked on her over the next couple of months. She appeared fine except for a mind that got muddled. I’m not sure why she was in hospital. I backed off for awhile. She told me her best friend Janet was like a sister. Janet was trying to find Mary a place to live, but it took many weeks and even months.

Over a month ago, I was at the hospital to visit my brother. I thought about Mary and called her. Turned out she was in an older townhouse. I found her there in a terrible state, severely malnourished. While her car was parked in the lot, she hadn’t driven it in some time. She couldn’t see due to cataracts and couldn’t remember her way around town. She felt safer not driving.

“Janet is mad at me for not driving. She thinks I should fight against old age. But I don’t feel safe thinking about driving.”

Having been a reporter for 25 years, I supported Mary in her decison to stop driving. Too many seniors kill themselves or others when they don’t accept their limitations.

I asked about food and Mary said the boxes of food sent by Janet had dwindled, “and she doesn’t answer her phone. I’ve tried and tried to call her.”

I became alarmed. I helped Mary get some food for a few days and monitored her over the next few weeks. Her digestive system balked at many things she tried to eat, plus she’s lactose-intolerant and allergic to strawberries and soy.

Janet told Mary that she forgot she owned this townhouse. She said she owned it for 20 years. Janet let out a second bedroom to a young man who works in construction. This is Mary’s current living situation.

I wanted to know about Janet so I did a search online. I found she had a criminal record for fraud over $5000. This happened 20 year ago, back when Mary would have been in her life. Janet was sentenced to eight months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $90,000.

I searched out the news story on the fraud and found a front-page story. Janet was doing taxes for a woman in her 80s. She suggested the woman invest $75,000 in something and an additional chunk for something else. The investment fell through and Janet spent the rest on herself.

The woman’s name was withheld in the criminal record and news story but I found her name under a subsequent lawsuit. Then I searched her obituary and called her son who lives in Fernie, BC. He wasn’t home but I left a message, unsure if he’d call back.

I took Mary out in the afternoon and as we sat on a bench near the harbour I got a call. It was the son. I stepped away to talk with him. He was dismayed to hear of Mary’s predicament. He said his mother was able to get some money back through the Royal Bank, but none was returned from Janet.

“My mother committed suicide,” he said. She lost her life savings. She thought of Janet “like a sister.” Just like Mary.

I contacted the police, who visited Mary. I’ve also been working with the government body overseeing those who have powers of attorney. The investigator told me that the townhouse where Mary lives is actually in Mary’s name. It was purchased in 2007. It’s also about to be seized by the bank through foreclosure.

Again, Mary knows what Janet said. Janet said the townhouse was in her name, and she was letting Mary live there.

Mary’s current financial state is “precarious,” the investigator said.

Mary doesn’t want to know the details. Any talk of Janet is distressing. One good thing that happened is the arrival of workers from the local health authority, who were alerted by the government when I reported Mary’s condition. They shop for her and help her bathe. It’s not enough. She needs to get into seniors housing but she has no money.

I awoke at 2:30 a.m. this morning. It’s going to be a busy day. I need to go to the lab for my A1C test. At least something is going right — the endo I’ve been working with this year has helped me bring my glucose numbers under better control.

Then I’ll be going to Mary’s place. We need to call Service Canada and find out where her pension cheques are being sent. I’m hoping we’ll have enough data to prove Mary’s identity. I was elated to find she still has her social insurance number card. Janet has all Mary’s tax info, and God knows what those documents look like.

Then we’re meeting with representatives from the health authority over her care. They don’t know me or understand my involvement. I may need to talk about some things away from Mary’s presence. She doesn’t know her home is in jeopardy.

I feel like I’ve dropped into a suspense movie, one where the ending is uncertain. Mary often feels like taking her own life, but I assure her she’ll come out of this all right.

I need to call the pro bono lawyer service to see if I can find a lawyer who can help us. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to sleep. It may be a while.

Please watch over vulnerable seniors in your life.

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