Slipping into Senility

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous writes movingly of his experience with having to have his father declared incompetent in order to protect him from scammers:

The hard part is not dealing with obvious incapacity. The hard part is before that, when the person is only mostly incapable. There's no legal way to slowly remove legal capabilities to fit the person's mental capabilities.

My father was being scammed (mostly "advanced-fee" scams) and would not stop despite being told by his lawyer, his children and the local police that he was being scammed. We looked for a way to stop this that was less than placing him under a financial guardian. It turns out that (at least in New York State) there is no intermediate step between "fully adult and capable" and "fully under the care of a financial guardian". The guardian can be (and was) directed to let him be as independent as possible, but that's at the guardian's discretion.

But getting this to happen required that I take my father to court; as you might imagine, he was not pleased and the stress on the family was high. A legal system which had intermediate levels would have been better for us -- we would have started applying it earlier and avoided some of the losses.

The driving license was trivial by comparison: my uncle submitted a formal complaint to the State and my father was asked to show up for testing; he declined, the license was revoked and the guardian sold his car.

The scammers were essentially doing the testing you speak of -- they apparently buy mailing lists from people who run mail-based "contests". You participate by sending in $15 and answering a few easy questions (like "Paris is the capital of what country?"). One of those who get the question right will be randomly picked to get the prize. Because of the question, this is legally a contest of skill and not a lotteries. Participating in such contests is probably a hint at some level of cognative weakness; following up on the initial approach of a scam is confirmation.

The elderly are particularly vulnerable to scams, and not merely because many of them suffer from mild dementia.  Those who have lost a spouse are often lonely and prey to anyone who offers them company.  Moreover, that spouse may have been the one who made all the financial decisions, and your seventies is not generally a good time to be trying to learn the rudiments of financial literacy.  And living on dwindling capital means that they are frightened and looking for some "too good to be true" way of enhancing their savings.

People who take advantage of this are some of the lowest scum on earth, and I cannot fathom how any of them wake up in the morning, look at themselves in the mirror, and think, "Yeah, I cheat old ladies for a living."  But it's very hard to intervene.  Doing so means forcing that person to acknowledge that they are no longer competent--or at least, that those around them believe they are no longer competent.  And let's not forget that this power can be (and is, not-infrequently) abused by children who have Dad declared incompetent so that they can get early access to his money, or prevent him from doing something he genuinely wants to do while in full possession of his faculties, like marrying a hot young blond thing and leaving her much of his childrens' inheritance.

But how do you tell when the hot young blond thing is cutting a reasonable deal, and when she's taking advantage of someone who's vulnerable?  Particularly when the vulnerability is something that afflicts a lot of people we consider competent, like extreme loneliness?