It has come to this: Someone stole more than $100,000 from my mother’s checking account. Someone else stole her purse, including all of her identification. And the federal government has cut off her Social Security payments. The Unites States is no longer a good place to grow old.
My mother is 92 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. She is living in an assisted living facility in Northern Virginia. She has the benefit of a son who lives less than an hour away and who spends a lot of time and energy trying to ensure that she is safe and comfortable. But despite my best efforts, her life is a mess.
A few years ago, my mother was living alone and showing signs of dementia. She rarely ate or bathed. She wouldn’t let anyone come into her house to help her. I already held power of attorney over her legal affairs, but it wasn’t enough. I confirmed her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, hired an attorney, went to court, had her declared mentally incompetent and was granted legal guardianship. Soon thereafter I placed her in a reputable assisted living facility. She fought it bitterly, but she had no recourse. She still hates it there. She still refuses to admit that she has an illness. She still is angry with me. I can live with all of that. You do what you have to do.
Last December, I got a call from my mother’s bank. There were all sorts of suspicious withdrawals from her checking account—all occurring since the most recent monthly statement arrived in the mail. The bank closed her account. I opened a new one and started informing government agencies that her retirement and benefit deposits should go to the new account. I thought that this would be a relatively simple process, conducted by phone or online, one that I could complete in a day. It turned out to be a convoluted nightmare.
I discovered that having power of attorney and legal guardianship is next to worthless. Agencies still want to hear from the person in person—even if he or she has Alzheimer’s and can barely recognize her own children. After several tries, I finally spoke to someone at the Social Security Administration who told me that I had to visit a local Social Security office to change how her benefit checks are deposited. Even though the checks were to go to the same bank—just a different checking account.
I drove nearly an hour, filled out pages of forms, waited a long time, and finally was ushered into a back office. I was told that I could not arrange to have her checks go to the new account. Only she could make that request. I objected, noting that my mother has no phone, gets confused easily and is barred by the Arlington County, Va., Circuit Court from handling her own financial affairs. Only I can do that, I noted.
My only option, they told me, was to be designated as the “payee” for my mother’s Social Security account. That, they added is a very big deal. I would have to fill out a lot more forms, which I did. Oh, and one final thing: They would have to conduct an extensive criminal background check on me. I said simply, “Fine.”
That was in January. I hear nothing until July, when Social Security sent a letter to my mother saying that her bank had rejected her July deposit. Apparently, the bank’s grace period for forwarding the payments from her old (closed) checking account to her new one had expired. The upshot: Social Security had terminated her payments. No recourse. Done. I guess I’ll have to hire another lawyer.
A few weeks before that letter arrived, I had received an email from my mother’s assisted living facility stating that a doctor had found a cancerous growth on my mother’s face and that I needed to take her to a dermatologist. I immediately made an appointment for her. I would need her ID, Medicare card and supplemental insurance card. They are always in her purse, which is always in her handbag. Except that the purse is gone. It’s nowhere in her room. There’s nowhere else it could be; she hasn’t left the building since Christmas. Lacking those cards, I had to cancel her dermatologist appointment. I asked the assisted living officials to look for my mother’s purse, but I’m not holding my breath.
It shouldn’t surprise me that her purse has been stolen. Some of her jewelry has been stolen. All of her good clothes have been stolen. Even her bedding has been stolen. The laundry room is next door, and her valuable items have her name on them on indelible ink, so it’s not like they’re just misplaced. They walk out the back door. It’s been happening ever since she arrived at the assisted living home. And this is no bargain-basement facility; it’s a big national chain that charges her $9,000 a month for the right to be robbed blind.
The only good news is that the bank eventually credited my mother’s new checking account for the funds that had been stolen. I never told her about the theft or any of the issues with her benefit checks; she is upset enough about her missing purse and the need to go to a doctor.
Maybe my mother has had an unusual run of bad luck. But many American families are facing similar issues. The problems of aging parents can eat up employees’ time and attention while they are in the office. And these problems can force them to take valuable time off of work to deal with doctors, lawyers and government officials. Some of these employees are raising children of their own at the same time—a double whammy.
HR professionals need to recognize that an increasing number of employees will be dealing with the issues of aging parents. Workplace flexibility is becoming more essential than ever in order to support and retain valued workers struggling with these matters.