Dementia patients fall prey to shady financial dealings

By Tom Blackwell
National Post
Feb 19, 2015

Advocates say problem on rise,

call for more ‘consumer alertness’

Carefully restored by her late husband, the 1931 Ford Model A had been in Grace Smith’s family for decades. So when the elderly Ontario woman unexpectedly sold the antique truck for a fraction of what it was worth, her daughter’s suspicions were immediately raised.

She eventually sued the neighbour who bought the vehicle, and now a judge has overturned the sale, ruling the buyer took advantage of Smith’s Alzheimer’s disease to get an “outrageous discount.”

Advocates for the elderly say the case underlines a mounting problem, as dementia afflicts more than 700,000 Canadians — a number expected to double in 20 years — and leaves them financially vulnerable to unscrupulous businesses, investment advisers and even family members.

“There’s always people out there ready to take advantage of people,” said David Harvey, head of public policy at the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada. “The incidence is going to increase ... so we need to put in place more consumer alertness around this.”

He said the society hears frequent stories of dementia patients falling victim to such problems, some more subtle than others. A 91-year-old man, for instance, was convinced to invest the proceeds from a house sale into a high-risk portfolio, suggesting the broker took advantage of the man’s cognitive impairment.

A number of other court cases in recent years have also revolved around suspected exploitation of dementia sufferers, who have given away cash or houses or engaged in risky financial transactions.

Yet the resulting disputes can be complex, the questionable transactions often occurring when the older person is in early stages of dementia, and symptoms might not always be obvious.

Smith, who lives in St. Catharines, Ont., started showing symptoms of dementia in May 2010, according to a lengthy small-claims-court ruling released recently. By that summer, she was phoning to tell her daughter, Ruth Tibbs, that her appliances had broken down, when she had simply not turned them on.

She later would get lost while driving to a well-known destination, had episodes of confusion and would hallucinate that small children were in her home. The tipping point came, though, when she threatened to jump into the Welland Canal, the decision said.

Shortly after returning home from hospital in the wake of that April 2011 incident, she sold the truck to a neighbour, Steven Croft.

He had offered to help wash a pond in her yard and otherwise befriended her, and suggested he would be interested in the truck if she ever wanted to sell. Not long afterward, he testified, she offered to give it to him, then to sell it for $2,000. Meanwhile, she complained about her children, including a son she claimed was taking tools from her garage, Croft testified, saying he did not notice she was cognitively impaired.

An appraiser who appeared at the trial suggested the truck had been worth $17,000, while Croft had it valued at $8,000.

Either way, he paid at most a quarter of its true worth, and should have known better, said Deputy Judge Terry Marshall in his ruling, calling the action legally “unconscionable.”

“He proceeded with the transaction for a paltry sum and later, on one or more occasions, asked Smith if she wanted more money,” said the judge. “This to me speaks to a guilty conscience.”

Tibbs declined to comment on her mother’s case. Croft could not be reached.

Other recent cases across the country have stemmed from similar suspicious circumstances.

A Yorkton, Sask., woman with dementia agreed to give her house to a grandson who promised to pay back-taxes and let her stay as long as she wanted, only to usher her out and install tenants instead. A judge ruled he had taken advantage of the woman and ordered the property returned.