Worried that the object of an elder's affection is nothing more than a gold digger? Here's how to unravel the romance before it's too late.
Problem #1: Dad keeps giving his caregiver expensive gifts.
What happens: Dad buys his caregiver costly items, such as a watch and a laptop -- or pays a caregiver-turned-girlfriend's rent and school fees. Or Mom gives her caregiver extra cash to buy toys, books, and food for her children. Loneliness and isolation can make older adults particularly vulnerable to relationships that start out as caregiving arrangements but quickly cross the line into friendship or romance, says Carolyn Rosenblatt, author of The Boomer's Guide to Aging Parents and consultant and mediator at www.AgingParents.com. "What I see all too often is elders with a desperate need for love, touch, and pleasure. When someone steps in to meet those needs, they're very vulnerable."
What to watch for: Be alert for signs that your parent's attachment to the caregiver is becoming extremely personal. You might start to hear stories about the caregiver's family difficulties, dire financial straits, or ill relatives. "Any sob story or plea for sympathy is a danger sign," Rosenblatt says.
What to say: In situations like this, logic isn't likely to work well, and neither are accusations. If you begin to criticize the caregiver, your parent is likely to jump to his or her defense. "Trying to talk someone who's lonely out of a relationship is like trying to talk you or me out of having the need to eat or sleep," says Rosenblatt.
Instead, express your sympathy for your father's loneliness and let him know you care about his situation. You might say something like, "Dad, since Mom died it's been pretty quiet and isolated here at the house. I can imagine how hard that must be." Discuss the emotional side of your father's needs and work with him to come up with solutions other than more time spent with the caregiver. Maybe he'd like to try the day program at the senior center, or even come live with another family member.
What to do: Call a family meeting -- even if you have to do it by conference call -- and include everyone except the person you're concerned about. Then elect one person to speak for the family in expressing your concerns. But be careful not to sound like you're putting your needs above your parent's. Instead, appeal to his self-interest, which for most older adults revolves around maintaining independence and quality of life. Remind him that these aspects of growing older with dignity depend on his protecting his assets.
If it's within your power, you might want to fire the caregiver, but often a better first step is to establish a careful monitoring situation in which you limit access to funds. Talk to your parent about giving you or another sibling durable power of attorney for finances to protect access to his money, says attorney and caregiving expert Barbara Kate Repa. If your loved one's judgment appears to be seriously impaired and you're not able to convince him or her to grant you power of attorney, you may need to apply for guardianship, also called conservatorship.
Problem #2: Dad wants to marry his caregiver.
What happens: Your parent may fancy himself in love. Or there may be other motives; for example, he may want to marry his caregiver so she can bring her children to the U.S. Either way, way there are long-term consequences that the family must confront.
What to watch for: Look for signs that your parent's relationship with his caregiver is crossing the line from professional to personal, says consultant and author Carolyn Rosenblatt. "It's much easier to try to stop an unhealthy dependence from developing than it is to end it once it's happening."
If a caregiver begins to ask for help, whether in the form of advice, legal referrals, or anything else that's beyond the usual boundaries of a paid position, that's cause for concern. So is any kind of plea for money, whether in the form of a gift, loan, or even a pay advance. If your parent already considers himself to be in a romantic relationship with his caregiver, then it becomes a question of searching for signs that the caregiver's intention is to access your parent's finances.
What to say: Open the dialogue gently, making sure your father feels that his side of the issue is being heard. "You may only have one shot at this conversation," says Kenneth Robbins, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Resist the temptation to speak authoritatively, as it could make your parent feel like you're reversing roles on him and telling him what to do with his life. Express your concerns in terms of your father's well-being. You might mention that the timing seems sudden, or that things are happening fast, and you'd just like to feel sure that he's thinking through the decision. If you have any concern that your dad's thinking might be impaired, ask if he's had a checkup recently and suggest that you make an appointment, says Robbins.
What to do: Keep uppermost in your mind the fact that control over his life and finances ultimately rests with your dad, unless his thinking is impaired. If an evaluation shows that your parent suffers from dementia, then it may be important to apply for guardianship before he begins making decisions with serious consequences, Robbins says. If you live in a community-property state, then your father's marriage could grant his new wife ownership over half of his assets, whether or not the marriage lasts. You can gently explain that this is a huge consequence and that you'd like to seek some legal advice before he takes this enormous step.
Problem #3: Dad keeps giving his caregiver and caregiver's family money for work that's never done.
What happens: Your dad's caregiver offers to help him get repairs made around the house and brings in her cousin Ned to do the work. Your dad pays his caregiver and Ned to purchase materials and supplies or as an "advance" on the work, which then never seems to be completed. Before you know it, Ned always seems to be around, and Dad seems more and more dependent on him.
What to watch for: Look for signs that the situation is developing into a pattern. It's important to distinguish between a one-time event or infrequent request and a situation that appears to be a pattern of behavior, one that's likely to escalate, experts say. Pay attention to transparency; does your parent know the full name of the person offering to do the work, and does he have any way to reach him directly?
What to say: Start by treating the situation as legitimate, and ask your parent for the worker's contact information. You might say, "Dad, I just want to make sure Ned understands exactly what we want him to do. Did he give you a business card?" You could also ask your parent if the workman provided an estimate of the work to be done -- and, if not, explain that you're going to call to get that information.
What to do: Let the caregiver know you're aware of what's happening and that access to your parent's money won't be so easy from now on. If you live in the area, be there the next time the workman is coming over to "work," and ask for identification and a contract. Often in these situations, if a scammer realizes a family member is becoming involved, he or she will fade away.
Meanwhile, if the caregiver was hired through an agency, notify the agency that the caregiver is referring family members for additional work outside the agency -- likely a violation of the company's policy. If the caregiver was hired independently, you're on your own. As the employer, though, you can stipulate what's allowed and what's not. If your parent is willing and you haven't already done so, write up a simple contract covering the work to be performed, and include a clause that the caregiver is not to bring in or "subcontract" work to other people.
With or without your dad's cooperation, contact your local Area Agency on Aging. Its staff is on the alert for local scams and frauds and can offer assistance. Start by talking to your dad and suggesting he make the call; Ann Cason, a caregiving consultant and author of Circles of Care: How to Set Up Quality Home Care for Our Elders, notes that many older adults caught up in these kinds of situations are embarrassed and are often more comfortable talking to an outsider than to a family member.
Problem #4: Dad's caregiver moves her family into the house.
What happens: When a caregiver has been in an older adult's life for a long time, she can begin to feel like family. And with housing scarce and expensive and many seniors living alone, it's surprisingly common for caregivers to ask if there's room for one more. Often a temporary request from a caregiver ("Could my son stay here for a few days while he's in town?") turns into a permanent situation. When that happens, "family" takes on a whole new meaning.
What to watch for: Stories of adult children who are out of work, siblings or spouses who are ill or disabled, anyone who "needs a break" or has some other personal issue going on.
What to say: Avoid direct criticism, since your parent's impulse was to be generous to someone he depends on, an admirable trait. Now that he's being taken advantage of, though, he's liable to feel embarrassed and ashamed, experts say, and criticism will just make him feel worse. Help him get out of the situation without embarrassment by saying, "Dad, it was so nice of you to let Janey move her son in; I know you meant well and it was such a kind thing to do. But it's been long enough, and we're not doing him any favors by letting him live here -- he needs a push to get on his own two feet. And it's just getting too crowded; I want you to be able to have some peace." This way the two of you are on the same side and can approach the caregiver as a united front.
What to do: Confrontation is unavoidable in this instance, but avoid the risk of tempers spiking by approaching it as a professional discussion. Visit the house and ask the caregiver to come outside to speak with you, so the discussion doesn't take place in front of the family members living in the home.
If your parent seems intimidated by the caregiver or the caregiver's family members, though, this is not an issue to be tackled alone. Call your Area Agency on Aging or Adult Protective Services and ask for help. These social service agencies have intervened in many such situations before (you'd be surprised how often) and will explain the possible steps you can take, including having a sheriff or policeman present while you evict the unwanted tenants.
Problem #5: Dad's new caregiver has suddenly become his "date" and he's spending all his money on her.
What happens: An inappropriate relationship with a senior family member doesn't have to be overtly sexual; many times it takes the form of companionship that skirts the line between normal caregiving activities and excessive extravagance. Other relationships change course openly: All of a sudden Dad wants the family to invite Penny over for dinner.
What to watch for: Uncharacteristic behavior, such as dramatic changes in routine or increased spending, is a red flag. One adult daughter from Tennessee reports that her father, who'd always been thrifty and a devotee of early bird and blue plate specials, suddenly began ringing up big tabs at gourmet restaurants for meals that often included an expensive bottle of wine -- although her dad didn't drink. When she approached the caregiver about the expenses running up her father's charge cards, the caregiver shrugged and said, "So he likes to go to nice places; what can I say?"
What to say: Approach this topic delicately, since your father's an adult, and his personal life -- and the expenses related to it -- are his business and likely to be a touchy subject. If there are siblings, discuss this among yourselves so everyone's on the same page, then elect one of you to be the spokesperson to talk to Dad. You don't want him to feel ganged-up on.
Mention to him that you've noticed his dining habits have changed a bit, and dig around -- oh so delicately -- about how he feels about that. Has he developed a passion for checking out the latest hot spots, or were the restaurant choices his companion's idea? As much as possible, let your dad lead the conversation and tell you how he feels about the situation.
What to do: Take a two-pronged attack here; protect your father's money while working to get him some more appropriate companionship in his life. Legally, your father's money is his to spend as he pleases, and if expensive dinners and nights on the town are his new entertainment of choice, there's not a lot you can do about it.
However, many people have found that older family members, when presented with other opportunities for companionship and fun, quickly move away from potentially exploitative relationships like this one. An Illinois man whose father was in this situation enrolled him in classes at the local senior center, where he quickly found his companionship in demand due to the high female-to-male ratio among his classmates. Once he met attractive women his own age, he lost interest in the caregiver who was insisting on being wined and dined.