Our relationships with our parents, our children, and their families can be complicated. When we are at our best, what we want for our parents, and other elders in our families including aunts and uncles, is to preserve their dignity as they age. Diet, exercise, environment, injuries, and genetics all play a role in our health. Everyone’s health is to varying degrees connected to their dignity. Sometimes a person’s “poor health” is not apparent and may be debatable. What I want to discuss here is how to deal with the situation where the elderly become vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Sufian and Ibrahim
Let’s walk through an example of a senior who starts. Say, for example, getting involved with a shady and risky investment.
Sufian is a 76-year-old retiree in Simi Valley, California. He “invested” $100,000 for a rice farm in Vietnam, owned by his housekeeper’s family. Sufian gave this money to his housekeeper, Kathy, through a cashier’s check. His son, Ibrahim, who lives in San Francisco, learned about it after a phone conversation with his father. They talk at least once a month. One of the other things he learned was that this was part of a pattern of “investments” with Kathy. She started to get him involved with small loans, like for a used car. Then Kathy moved to get $50,000 to start a “vitamin franchise” last year. The terms for these investments were sketchy, and it looked a lot like there was an enormous amount of risk with not a lot, and likely no reward for his money.
Sufian may handle this news a few different ways. These options are not all mutually exclusive. He can select a combination of options, as can other children of parents with similar concerns:
Berate his father for making a bad decision
Ibrahim can talk down to his father, tell him he is making horrible decisions and that this housekeeper is a crook and that Sufian should have known better. This berating might go on for 20 minutes, and he can make his father feel 2 inches tall.
This strategy may work to a point. Sufian may realize that he should consult with his children before making such decisions. It can also backfire (this may be more likely). It can cause the father to not speak to his son about things like this anymore. Why spend the little bit of time you have with your son in conflict mode? Just don’t bring up financial stuff, or anything beyond small talk about the grandkids. Maybe not even do that.
Maybe Sufian will just shut down completely and become more isolated and more dependent on non-family members like Kathy. This happens with many elderly parents.
Of course, Kathy is still around, and if she is gone, there may be more willing to take her place. The world is not hurting for greedy, manipulative people. Financial elder abusers tend to march into senior’s lives like a parade of darkness. There is still a risk of elder abuse.
Berating also has the result of making Sufian feel like he lost his dignity.
Lastly, this strategy is probably the most common but falls against Quranic guidance. For Example:
And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as], “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word.
Berating is always the wrong strategy. I completely understand that it would be tempting though.
Ibrahim gets his father to identify the problem and solution.
The reason this may have come up in a conversation is that it is not a run-of-the-mill transaction. Ibrahim walks through the deal with his father without making any conclusions about it or the housekeeper, nevermind how transparently ridiculous it seems or if he thinks the housekeeper should be in jail.
Any business transaction has risks and rewards. He brings out what the risks are, and what the potential rewards are for the investment. Seniors don’t like being victims of scams any more than anyone else. They don’t often think of themselves as having feeble minds. We all make mistakes, and we are all susceptible to influence of some sort or another. As consumers, we all make irrational decisions from time to time, albeit on a smaller scale. Younger adults will convince ourselves that a purchase of a timeshare makes perfect sense when there is no possible way it could be justified on paper.
With financial elder abuse, the numbers can be more significant and be financially devastating, but a lot of the same tendency to be manipulated is in play.
The goal of such a discussion is to allow the parent to come up with their solution, but with some input from you in a 2-way conversation. It is best that Sufian come up with the fact that the housekeeper is a problem, and that there are some problems with these transactions. There should also be a solution for how to deal with these issues if they ever come up in the future.
Call Adult Protective Services
If Ibrahim thinks Sufian has been a victim of financial elder abuse, he can call the county agency that deals with this kind of thing. Calling a government agency is not easy or the obvious thing to do of course. In California, unless you are a mandated reporter, reporting to Adult Protective Services can be anonymous. Ibrahim might balance the fact that calling APS may do nothing more than cause Sufian aggravation. He may also get some flyers. He may want to talk to them anyway to evaluate his options.
Ibrahim can get a conservatorship in probate court to prevent his father from making more terrible decisions. A conservatorship may or may not work. However, it can potentially damage his relationship with his father, perhaps for a long time. Sufian can even get his lawyer to dispute the conservatorship. We then have the specter of Ibrahim and Sufian, son and father, both hiring lawyers in a case against each other.
A conservatorship involves going to a Judge in a public hearing, even trial with witnesses, including expert witnesses, who don’t come cheap. Most importantly, it may be treated as an insult even if Ibrahim has the best of intentions. In some cases, it is the only real legal remedy that can prevent Sufian from self-ruin. So Ibrahim may need to go this route if things go badly enough. Of course, he needs to do this with the most excellence he can muster.
The Quran does not mandate that we not act against the wishes of our parents or never disappoint them. It mandates that we treat them with excellence. A conservatorship may be good for him.
Become the Trustee
If Sufian has a living trust, say to do Islamic Inheritance, there is going to be some mechanism to deal with incapacity. Preferably, it would be a system that is private, keeps all the concerns within the family and does everything possible to maintain the dignity of the father. Evaluation inside the family of if Sufian has the executive decision-making ability needed to continue acting as his Trustee. The rest of the world does not need to know. Checks on Sufian can be mostly invisible to Sufian, where the Trustee maintains control over larger accounts but regular bills and obligations, continue to be handled by Sufian, and account activity is monitored by the Trustee to make sure there is no abuse.
People who have lost their executive decision-making ability can be quite ordinary in many other ways. They can be people I would turn to for valuable advice. I am sure you know elders, including your own parents if you are still blessed with them, from whom you would love to draw on for wisdom.
That seniors make financial mistakes from time to time should not change that. We need to treasure them and act like our own dignity depends on their dignity, because it does.