How to get someone to understand that the people asking her for money are not her friends?
January 22, 2012 12:40 PM   Subscribe

In each mail delivery to her home, my mother-in-law gets about a dozen urgent requests for help with protecting our borders or our seaports or the Constitution or the rights of seniors or for money to aid Native American children or children with serious ailments or disabilities. A few years ago, her daughters discovered that she was sending out a few small checks every day, amounting to about $500 a month. Which is not the problem. The problem is that she gives full credence to these solicitations, feels obliged to study them carefully, and worries about the local or national calamities or potential calamities that they describe. And she cannot be dissuaded from the idea that the solicitations are directed to her personally because her name is prefixed or inserted throughout the text. I'm sure that many MeFites have encountered this problem with a naive, older relative. Any suggestions, other than trying to stop mail from people she believes to be her friends?
posted by RichardS to Human Relations (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If money (the $500) is not the issue, what is the difference if she reads and believes them?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:48 PM on January 22, 2012

Please consider that this may not just be a naive relative - it might be the start of dementia or a related problem. The fact that she reverts to believing that the letters are personal, despite having the actual mechanism explained to her several times, may mean that she's having issues retaining or understanding the information.

While she may otherwise be perfectly fine, you may want to think about whether there are other similar issues and seeing if she needs medical attention, rather than family financial advice. Too often, elderly people, especially women, have to get to the point of experiencing really serious, frightening problems before what's happening is taken seriously. The "Naive, Dotty Old Lady" image sometimes can blind others to what's really going on.

(Or maybe that's not happening in this case...I don't know your MIL, but the possibility is worth considering.)
posted by Wylla at 12:49 PM on January 22, 2012 [11 favorites]

I agree with JohnnyGunn that she can donate her money as she likes. You might suggest to her, though, to select one or maybe two charities to target with her money, helping it go a lot further toward causes she genuinely supports. After a while (sometimes a long while) charities that don't receive donations from her will stop sending her appeals.
posted by DrGail at 12:52 PM on January 22, 2012

The only solution I have ever seen work is stopping the mail, or redirecting it all to someone else to open and process for her - the trouble is that these things are designed not to have any instant giveaways. It can sometimes work if you tell them that it's only to her personally if it has a real stamp on it; the concern there is that mail isn't that simple:

1. Personal letters to her: rare, come in a hand-addressed envelope, with a real stamp.
2. Official business letters she needs to open: common, come with her name pre-printed on them, don't have a real stamp.
3. Solicitations: common, have her name pre-printed on them (except sometimes they use "handwriting" fonts), don't have a real stamp (except sometimes they put a sticker in the normal stamp area, which fools a lot of people.)

If she's got any kind of difficulty figuring out the difference between 1 and 3, I don't see a way of fixing this that doesn't mean she stops opening up 2.

And yeah, this sounds like the start of dementia to me, too.

(It's going to take a LOT of work to get those mailings to stop coming in, if she's been responding to them. I suggest redirecting her mail because it may be the only thing that'll work in anything like the near term.)
posted by SMPA at 12:52 PM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are these direct mail solicitations from legitimate registered charities? Her name and address must be on a database somewhere. Can you call the organisations directly and ask for her name and address to be removed from their mailing list?

I work at a registered charity and we send out a few direct mail mass solicitations like this every year to people on our database. The fact that someone has donated before will put them onto a "regular giver" or "committed giver" list which means she will get letters referring to her past gifts etc. We often receive phone calls from people asking to be removed from our mailing list, it's not such a big deal from our end and easily done.
posted by Ziggy500 at 12:53 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is she is retired? Has she lost a spouse or a friend or a family member recently? Does she get out much? Assuming she is not suffering from an age-related mental illness, it sounds to me like she lonely and feels like she needs some purpose in life.

If she is still fairly mobile, is there a way you could get her involved in supporting some specific cause by volunteering with a trustworthy organization? Could she deliver meals to housebound neighbors? Could she read books to children at a local library? Could she volunteer at an animal shelter, or get involved in a community garden?

If she longs to get personal correspondence, could you arrange to have her children and grandchildren send her regular, written postcards or letters? Could you find her a (trustworthy) pen pal?

If it were me advising her, I would have another gentle conversation with her about how her money might not always be going where she thinks it is, and then try to channel the enthusiasm she has for connecting with charities and helping other people by suggesting one or two simple, manageable causes she could support. You could say, "I think it's great that you want to help people, and one way you could make sure that your money and time are doing real good is to focus on X local reputable organization." And then I would try to visit her more often and call her more often and send her mail more often so she doesn't feel the need to pretend that mass solicitation letters are communications from friends.
posted by BlueJae at 1:00 PM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree with Wylla. $500 is a lot of money to be sending out based on a mistake :/
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:00 PM on January 22, 2012

I had a great-aunt who lived to 100. For the last 20 years of her life she spent all day doing her "paperwork". She would donate small $5 checks to all these little solicitations she got. She was lonely. She was a smart woman who wanted to be challenged late in life. She would carefully consider every solicitation that came her way. She was analyzing them and researching them. Some would get $10 if she thought it worth it while others only got $5.

What she really preferred, was responding to actual friends and family that wrote. I would write a hand written note once a month and I had my kids write notes often as well. We would get 5 pages back full of stories like, "That reminds me of the time I saw Teddy Roosevelt on the steps of city hall when I was a little girl." One paragraph from us mentioning the weather and school or work and away she would go.

Perhaps she is just filling a void in her life. She knows if she donates she will get more solicitations and more address labels and more flags, etc. Maybe, if the money doesn't mean anything, she is spending $500 a month in entertainment. It sounds like it bothers you more than her.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:22 PM on January 22, 2012 [22 favorites]

I wouldn't discount the possibility that lists of givers are sold or otherwise shared with organizations that may or may not be similar to those to which a donor has contributed. The volume of solicitations always proliferates. Years ago I made a small contribution to the National Museum of the American Indian. Since then I have regularly received solicitations from all manner of organizations concerned with Native Americans. My mailbox is overstuffed to this day with address labels, notepads, dreamcatchers, etc. I wouldn't be surprised if expenses for fund raising exceed donations for some of these charities.

I think giving bits of money to various causes is a choice people who are retired sometimes make in order to feel good about themselves as still being contributors to society. If this impulse and the benefit to the individual can be recognized in a positive way, perhaps some help with researching the statistics published by various charities and the tools available online for evaluating their effectiveness would add a welcome dimension of wisdom to the giving.

While this activity might be a marker for encroaching dementia, it might simply be an amount spent in service of feeling good about oneself which is not so very different from the amount a younger person spends in service of the same cause.
posted by Anitanola at 2:09 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think some folks are missing the point you're trying to make, which has nothing to do with the money - it seems like she's being given stress over the situations these solicitors are alleging, and you're wanting to ameliorate that in some way. Is that right?

If so, you may well want a combination of the loneliness-busting activities suggested above (so that she has access to other inputs) and providing materials with contrary perspectives/facts/good news. It might be difficult to locate periodicals and the like with celebratory, affirming stories that would give her more positive input without condescending to her, but it seems like it would be worth the search.
posted by batmonkey at 2:09 PM on January 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm also unclear as to what the actual problem is or what an ideal solution is, in your view.

Nothing you've written sounds like a problem or an indication of senility or dementia. Just an older person with a hobby.

You say the money is not the problem. So, would a satisfactory solution be to give to charity without reading the letters? Or to give to different charities?

Is the problem that she spends a lot of time reading the solicitations? Is she spending time doing this instead of caring for herself, or taking care of other, more important obligations? In my experience a number of older people simply have a hard time filling the day. This doesn't seem like an awful way to do it.

Or is the problem that she sees these groups as "friends" and you think that's dishonest? Does she truly see these people as friends? Does she send them correspondence in addition to checks?

Is this really a problem for her or is it just stressing you out?
posted by Ookseer at 2:20 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does she literally not understand mail merge and how those things could be custom created to target her? In that case, you might try demonstrating how it's done to her and providing her with a list of letters targeting her and all of her friends in just a few minutes using nothing more than a household computer.

But I'd agree with others that the fact that she's both sending the money and seems confused about the nature of the letters suggest that there's an aging problem happening here.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:29 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think $500 is a lot of money and it could get worse fast. If she were my MIL I would have all her mail forwarded to me and then just get the real mail to her. Then I would sit down and try to get her to pick just a few charities to simplify things. Then I would find one of those charities that have real children that write back to you and you could screen 2 or three and make sure they are legitimate and let her write to these three children as much as she wants. You could also have her sponsor an adult through KIVA and I am sure whomever you sponsor you should also be allowed to send encouraging letters to. You can send as little as 20 to a Kiva person, I believe. Then explain to her that you know how to screen these people to find out if they are legitimate and that she should run any new person by you first. That way she won't go out on her own to find people which may lead to scammers.
posted by cda at 2:42 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The problem is that she gives full credence to these solicitations, feels obliged to study them carefully, and worries about the local or national calamities or potential calamities that they describe. And she cannot be dissuaded from the idea that the solicitations are directed to her personally because her name is prefixed or inserted throughout the text. I'm sure that many MeFites have encountered this problem with a naive, older relative. Any suggestions, other than trying to stop mail from people she believes to be her friends?

I don't think I understand your explanation of the situation. Are the organizations not legit/poorly run? Or is it that the issues are overstated, and if so, does she do research outside of the materials provided by the organizations before making a donation? Is the problem that the issues are causing her too much stress? Or is it the principle of her rewarding the squeakiest wheels that is upsetting everyone? It sounds like the solicitations are being directed to her personally. What does she not understand? Are you saying that she doesn't understand that a lot of people get the exact same letter?
posted by desuetude at 2:43 PM on January 22, 2012

I was going to suggest exactly what cda said. Find a reliable charity that will write back to her on a regular basis. The ones cda suggested are good, and I think some of the ones where you give a gift of a goat, or a flock of chickens, etc, also send newsletters with updates. That way, she'll be getting encouraging news instead worrying over heartbreaking stories all the time. And I would do my best to get her off all other mailing lists.

I would also try to fill her time (and mailbox) with other things to keep her busy. Maybe some magazine subscriptions (Mental Floss is one that my mother likes for keeping her mind busy), or have her join a book of the month club. She could put a lot of time and energy into picking out exactly which book she's going to get each month. :)
posted by MexicanYenta at 3:26 PM on January 22, 2012

You could add her name and address to the Do Not Mail list maintained by the Direct Marketing Association.

This won't stop all of it, but it will stop some. The lists of people who make donations are shared and sold. If someone makes any donation to one, he/she will get many more solicitations.
posted by caclwmr4 at 3:32 PM on January 22, 2012

One of my grandmothers was in this situation after she was widowed. In our case it was not an old woman just getting on mailing lists of legitimate orgs and frittering away her money to good causes. A lot of the responders to this question have never seen this happen, but I can assure everyone that there appears to be a bunch of SCAMMERS with fake charities (though some perhaps minimally technically legal to keep the authorities at bay for a while). Looking at the stuff she received, I was amazed how transparently scammy these people who prey on old people are, but they certainly have learned how to target old people and milk them for money.

Multiple times family members explained to her that not all of the solicitations she was receiving were from good/honest people, but she continued to give away money until there was financial trouble. If I remember correctly, at that point control of her bank accounts was given to one of my aunts to stop the problem.

These people are total scum and I suspect they are fly-by-night, operate under multiple names (which may not be used for long), and do not even check the Do Not Mail list or have any connection to the Direct Marketing Association (or other legitimate marketing or charity networks).
posted by D.C. at 3:39 PM on January 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Talk to her about getting the most value for her money. At 500/month, she's a philanthropist. Bits of money to lots of charities tends to reward charities that do lots of marketing. Mail-order charities sell your name, and a lot of money gets spent by a lot of groups, all trying to get her to give. 500/month could do a lot of good given to a smaller group of charities that meet a need close to her heart.

She may be bored, and giving money gives her a way to feel involved and gives her a sense of meaning. Maybe the family could help her find a sense of meaning by volunteering. Maybe there are groups or activities she could get involved with.
posted by theora55 at 6:03 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

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