My father Ken Rivard died last August, one week after turning 90, in a Philadelphia-area senior care facility. A few weeks before his death, we shared a final conversation and lunch, and a visit to his wife, Betty, my mother, in an adjacent memory care unit.
“Your friend Robert Redford wrote me a letter and I’m sending him a check,” my father told me.
“Robert Redford and I are not friends, Dad,” I said.
“Sure you are, you’ve met everybody, and he sent a letter personally addressed to me. I have it right here.”
My father began digging through a mountain of mailings piled on the small desk next to his bed. I began to pick through the papers myself as he searched for the Redford letter. Publishers Clearing House winner notifications (not!) and magazine subscription offers, pleas from organizations purporting to represent wounded or disabled veterans, sheriff’s deputies, and indigenous children in Latin America. There were the usual “check enclosed” come-ons, and lots of computer-generated thank-you notes from competing Catholic charities thanking him for his small gift and suggesting it might be time to consider giving even more.
One charity, Feeding America’s Hungry Children, sent my father a new pair of underpants for a little girl, with this wording on the envelope: “You may be thinking – this guy must be crazy…mailing me children’s underwear. I’m not crazy…and the kids really need them.” Crazy, indeed.
I casually tossed the Publishers Clearinghouse envelope, fat with inducements and carefully phrased suggestions of imminent fortune, into the waste basket.
“Don’t!,” my father pleaded, struggling to bend over and retrieve the trash. “You stand a lot better chance of winning if you select some magazines. Are there any you need?”
He eventually found the letter he was looking for and handed me a computer-generated letter from the Natural Resources Defense Council under Redford’s name and mechanical signature. It was a “Dear friend” letter not personally addressed to my father. The envelope, however, was addressed to my father. That was enough to convince him that his son’s “friend Robert Redford” was writing to ask for help in protesting the proposed Pebble Mine, which a Canadian mining company wanted to open in the Alaskan wilderness. The organization and cause were legitimate enough, but the mailing to senior care residents by name and individual apartment unit was disturbing.
My two sisters, Barb and Chris, both registered nurses who live and work in the Philadelphia area, had spoken with me on various occasions about my father’s misguided generosity in wanting to send a check to every organization around the world with its hand out and his name in their database. Taking away my father’s access to his checking and savings accounts was a long and painful struggle. In the end, we compromised, and Ken was given a checking account with a small balance that my sisters monitored.
My father had suffered a series of strokes over the years that limited his ability to express himself verbally, and even with hearing aids, he was quite deaf. One day earlier in the year, my sisters told me, he threw a temper tantrum after they refused to bring my mother up from the memory unit, where she sat with advanced Alzheimer’s in a world of her own, so she could have her hair done. My father was convinced by the latest mailing that he had won the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and he wanted Betty at his side, both looking their best, for the inevitable check presentation and television cameras.
My sisters took turns disposing of the accumulated mailings outside Dad’s sight. But that didn’t stop the mailings, especially from the many organizations that had received a check for $15 or $25 from Ken. Those follow-up missives ratcheted up the emotional appeals to a near-crescendo, with life and death outcomes awaiting my father’s attention and charity.
I gathered up a sampling of the mailings during my final visit and promised my father I’d give them a careful review before stuffing them into my luggage for the trip home. Months passed after my father’s death, and while I thought it was important to write something that might save other families the pain of financial loss, it took some time before I was ready to open up the box and sort through things.
My father was a devout Catholic, one who clearly believed that giving away money — money he simply did not possess to give away — was the way to heaven. In truth, for a man who depended on Social Security checks and a small pension, he was remarkably selfless and generous. Ken couldn’t say no, and didn’t want to say no. He wanted to write checks, stuff envelopes, lick stamps, and make his way slowly downstairs with the help of a walker to the mail drop-off. It was the path to absolution.
As if they all knew Ken and his proclivities very well, every charitable organization with a sophisticated mass mailing operation was at his doorstep asking for money. My family’s story of victimization is a story shared by millions of other families. While many of the organizations are legitimate and dependent on the generosity of donors, there is something creepy about sophisticated campaigns aimed at society’s most vulnerable and elderly.
The U.S. Postal Service, which delivers all this junk mail to waiting seniors, does offer fraud avoidance advice on its website. Click here for tips to avoid “sweepstakes fraud.” The National Council on Aging offers more practical advice, with links that can help seniors, family members or guardians register telephone numbers on Do Not Call lists and cut out junk mail.
Most seniors will need assistance registering online to activate the “opt out” option with the Direct Marketing Association. That will stop a lot. For a $20 annual fee, seniors can try a private service like stopthejunkmail.com, which will stop catalogs, credit card offers and nonprofits. Legitimate charities and nonprofits, meanwhile, should be pushed to rethink their strategies for pitching people living in nursing homes or unable to make sound, independent decisions.
UPDATE: Mark Ross, a reader and a friend of friends, read this story and recommended that I add the PaperKarma app as an option for seniors and their families. It’s especially good for family members traveling to visit seniors. You use your smart phone to snap a photo of each unwanted solicitation and automatically block future mailings from that organization to the same address.
We are living longer than ever now. Many from the World War II generation have exceeded all actuarial predictions, living well into their 90s or longer. Yet we are not very good as a society in knowing how to care for and protect the very old. Only families with significant resources can afford to place loved ones in the best senior care communities and facilities. The prospect of greater life expectancy comes with unanticipated financial challenges for almost everyone.
That’s one more reason to give aging loved ones every protection possible to make sure they do not lose their money or dignity to schemes and strangers.
Top image: A few of the mailings and financial come-ons Ken Rivard was processing in the weeks before his death at age 90 last August. Photo by Robert Rivard