The SF Chronicle’s Carolyn Said recently published an article detailing the story of Leslie and Cheryl Berkes, an elderly couple in Moraga whose caretaker methodically drained their retirement, checking and savings accounts over a period of years, totalling more than $350,000. The story details charges for things like $18,000 worth of athletic wear, a cruise, carpeting, liposuction and tens of thousands of dollars of ATM withdrawals and unauthorized checks. All this, mind you, while the couple’s caring and involved children lived nearby. Basically, your worst nightmare.
The article details a familiar story-well-educated parents who were private about their financial lives and eager to remain independent, even in the face of memory loss at a relatively young age (mid-70’s). But as Leslie started to fall, and have periods of confusion, the couple’s children found them a caretaker with excellent references to help them with daily tasks such as driving to appointments and preparing meals. As their parents continued to decline, the family decided it was time to get them more care. But the parents declined and rejected the very idea of moving into an assisted living facility.
At that point, their children decided it was time to take a look at their parent’s finances to see what kind of care they could afford. Even with a Durable Power of Attorney in place, it took awhile to get access to the account statements and that was when they realized what was happening, called the police and put a stop to the theft.
The adult children in this family did so many things right: they did their best to hire a caretaker with excellent references; they did a background check; they had a power of attorney in place; they were actively involved with their parents on a daily basis. Despite the fact that California has an Elder Abuse Reporting Act that requires an extensive list of people who interact with the elderly, including banks and credit unions, to report suspected financial abuse of elderly people, no one reported anything to the police until the family rang the alarm.
So, what’s the take away here? The one thing that might have made the caretaker’s theft apparent sooner would have been the parents’ acceptance of the need for their adult children’s oversight sooner. Had the Berkes’ been willing to allow their children to co-manage their accounts, the children would have been able to stop the caretaker from opening up credit cards in their parents’ names, pull cash out of the ATM’s and write checks on the bank accounts. So many elderly people prize their independence and can’t see their own cognitive decline. So many adult children, especially of accomplished, well-educated parents, are not in the habit of stepping in to supervise their parents and are reticient to discuss finances with them.
But as this story makes clear, perhaps we all need to recognize the need for frank converations and pragmatic partnerships to protect our elders from such abuse, sooner rather than later.