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Looking for Love…


By Julie Schoen, JD, National Center on Elder Abuse

I don’t think there are many of us who can honestly say that in matters of the heart, we have always made the wisest decisions. We all want to be acknowledged and loved at some level or another.  A person who could be isolated, alone and vulnerable like an older adult may be even more susceptible when it comes to making decisions involving matters of the heart. So in this month when the focus is on Valentine’s Day, our hearts, relationships, and the feeling of being in love- let us take a moment to explore how to protect ourselves and loved ones from something known as the Sweetheart Scam.

One phone call that has always stayed with me came from a son who had concerns about a 45-year-old woman who had befriended his 78-year-old father very quickly after his mother’s death.  He began with, “My dad is the best. He deserves to be happy.  He took excellent care of my mother over a long drawn-out illness.  He has worked hard and his money is his to do with as he pleases, but… he met this woman in a support group. They have become friends and he has bought her a car and is helping her with a problem with her daughter.  Honestly, that is just fine, but I just want to make sure he always has his home to come home to. Do you know what I mean?”

I was struck by his sincerity.  I asked him the usual questions about his father’s decision making ability etc. and he assured me his dad was sharp as a tack. He again reiterated he just wanted to make sure that his dad had some measure of protection.  I asked him if he felt he could broach this conversation with his dad just as calmly and capably as he had with me.  I asked him if his father had an estate plan and how the title of the home was held.  He was unsure.  We then discussed how he could sensitively begin this conversation with his dad; beginning with his appreciation for all his father had done in caring for his mother, understanding that the new friend was a good companion, but that sometimes even well-meaning people get in over their heads.  Then I suggested he ask his father to consider making sure that he had the proper legal documents so his home would be protected for his lifetime.  The son felt he could do this.

The son called me a week later.  He had the heart to heart conversation. He said it did begin to escalate when his father said the son was just worrying about his inheritance., but the son took his Dad’s hand and said, “Dad, I just want you to be happy and safe.” This calmed the father and he then talked about his estate plan. He said the home was in a trust and that he really should go in and review it with an attorney now that the mother had passed.

Unfortunately, this is NOT how many of our cases end, but what I want you all to walk away with is a sense of the priorities when it comes to Sweetheart Scams.  The son was realistic; he was involved in his dad’s life.  He did not jump in thinking he had to take over. His father had the right to make his own financial decisions, and the son was just able to get him to see the big picture. No matter how old we are, fraudsters make their money by pushing our buttons and taking advantage of our trust and good intentions.

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Special Thanks to Judith D. Tamkin

We are sincerely appreciative to Judith D. Tamkin for her gift to help establish the USC Center on Elder Mistreatment’s website. Her deep and personal commitment to eradicating elder abuse is helping to reshape our understanding of elder abuse and ultimately save innumerable older adults from abuse and neglect.