Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Protection of the Elderly

"Am I my brother's keeper?" - Genesis 4:9

The question is asked by God, to Cain, regarding the death of his brother Abel, the first and second born sons of Adam and Eve. From time immemorial the question echoes down the epochs.

"Am I my brother's (parents', grandparents') keeper?"

Yes, you are.

I am really quite horrified by several things that have happened in the past year or so that I am aware of through friendship and family. My suspicion is that there is much more of this going on that people say, due to fear and embarrassment. I am referring to the mis-care of the elderly.

I was first made aware of this sad situation through what happened to the mother of a friend of mine, who went through a decline in mental abilities that we would put under the umbrella of dementia. This particular woman has several children and they together agreed that one of the children would serve as the legal guardian and primary caregiver. The other siblings were in other parts of the country.

Sadly, as time progressed, the other siblings began to sense that something was amiss. The light dawned a bit too late, however, as when they began to investigate, they learned that their mother's life's savings had been squandered on cars, vacations, private elementary school tuition and frivolities none of which had anything whatsoever to do with their mother's care and well-being. Concern led to a kind of wary suspicion and that led to investigation and discovery, but by the time the facts were known, their mother had been moved to a care facility and of her resources, there was nothing left, whatsoever.

Thankfully, in this particular case, the mother and her late husband had purchased long-term care insurance, so she is in a secure and safe place, and can stay there as long as necessary. The other siblings have taken charge of overseeing her care. They are hurt and angry that anyone would have taken such advantage of a lovely, capable, caring person who in her senior years, lost the ability to make sound decisions on her own. That it was one of her own children makes the matter all the worse.

While this story was unfolding, I then heard from a woman whose grandmother had for many years lived in a retirement-nursing community, and who had just died. The granddaughter, seeking to do right by her grandmother, tried to make plans for services, and for dealing with the grandmother's personal effects, acting on behalf of her own mother who was unable to travel to the location where the grandmother lived and died. Upon arrival there, the granddaughter learned to her shock and horror that the grandmother had changed all of the information regarding her personal wishes, several years before, specifically removing any family members from legal guardianship, power of attorney, or executor of her will. The grandmother had been an independent and vital person well into her eighth decade and the family, who lived thousands of miles away, had been told by her all of their various roles and responsibilities. Nonetheless, the will had been changed almost beyond recognition, and the family members had been replaced by recent "friends", leaving the family legally distanced from the grandmother. All of this took place surreptitiously, during a time period when the grandmother had experienced a decline in mental ability. When the family consulted several law firms about what to do, they were told in cases like this it is usually futile to try to fight what has happened since the claim will be that even if the person in question was experiencing dementia, that person may have had a "moment of clarity" in which the changes in the will, advance directive and power of attorney were made.

The family members are left feeling dazed and angry that anyone would have taken such advantage of a lovely, capable, caring person who in her senior years, lost the ability to make sound decisions on her own. That it occurred while she was in a very lovely retirement-nursing setting makes the matter all the worse.

The third situation is that of a high powered executive, who, upon retirement, became more and more distant from her extended family. The way it happened was this. She too lived many states away from the other family members with the one exception that her only child, now middle aged, lived with her. One by one, the other family members each experienced a verbal lashing out (via telephone) from this woman, who said to each in turn, and over the course of a decade, that she did not want to hear from them, ever again. In each case, these family members were somewhat dumbfounded, and perplexed, but also hurt. As a result they did not "compare notes" about what happened, and while they were concerned that the woman was declining in her decision making and reasoning, left things more or less alone, trusting that the only child was on the scene and could in a caring way, assess what was happening, and respond effectively.

That was until a notice appeared on line that the woman's apartment was to be auctioned off for default. This sent the scatted family members into action, talking with each other and comparing what had been said over time. Clearly, something was terribly amiss, and they said to one another for the first time that any attempts to reach the woman by phone (in the past several years) had been met with constant ringing without any option for leaving a message, and without any recorded notice that the phone was no longer in service. In this third situation, the woman's whereabouts were not known, nor those of her adult child/caretaker.

The extended family mustered a number of avenues to try to locate her and to find out what has happened. They were deeply concerned and frightened about what they might learn. They were also confused and angry that anyone might have taken advantage of a bright, capable, successful person who in her senior years, lost the ability to make reasonable decisions on her own. The recommended step (from a friend who was a former police officer in that same city) was to contact the local precinct, and have the officers check on the situation. Though they did not answer the door, and it had to be opened by force, the woman and her adult child were there, on the scene. Many questions remain, even so.

You perhaps have someone in your orbit of family, a great-aunt, great-uncle, uncle or aunt, elderly cousin, grandparent or parent, who had distanced themselves from you in similar ways. They are far away, perhaps. They have kept you at arm's length, or have told you to mind your own business. My recommendation to you is not to go along with that, but rather to find out for yourself if the person is well and well cared for. To check on them now, and often.

You may find that the person was just having a bad day. Or you may be able to intervene and help that person when they need it the most.

Yes, you may risk making the elderly family member mad at you that you butted-in. But then again, you may save that person's life or make it more safe and secure.

Are you your other's keeper? Yes, you are.

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