Teresa Boardman is a long-time columnist with 400-plus Inman columns under her belt. She writes about her real estate observations and experiences as an officeless indie broker in Minnesota.
My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease. There are currently 5.8 million Americans with the disease, and the number is growing as the population ages. It is a fatal and incurable illness and sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., reports the Alzheimer’s Association.
Where’s the line?
Adults in our society have rights even if they are impaired and that is where things can get dicey. I have met with homeowners who were obviously impaired. Should I have signed contracts with them?
There are older homeowners who do not seem at all impaired, but their adult children are working hard to get them to sell their house. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the elder doesn’t want to sell and that their children are pressuring them.
Are they impaired? Is it alright to sign a contract with them because that is what their children want?
As adults, we have the right to age in place if that is our choice. As I learned, we even have the right to make bad choices. Those choices can lead an elderly person to a fall, which can lead to loss of independence and death. If my mother had been able to tolerate in-home care we would have kept her in her home.
The Alzheimer’s Association has started doing some outreach to businesses. They are teaching small business owners to recognize and help someone in their store or restaurant who seems confused. One of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s is decreased or poor judgment.
The other side of the transaction
My mother had a lot of business cards and mailings from Realtors in her possession. When I stayed with her and answered her phone, there were a surprising number of calls from real estate agents. One was just following up from an open house my mother had attended.
It is likely that my dad talked her out of signing a contract or putting any of their real estate on the market. He kept an eye on things until he couldn’t see, and then I took over.
There isn’t any rule or law that says that someone with Alzheimer’s cannot enter into a contract. In the early stages of the disease, a person may be quite competent to enter into a contract, but they may also be especially susceptible to influence.
It seems wrong to enter into a contract with someone who has a disease that impairs their judgment, that causes confusion and that disrupts their daily life, but it happens.
When I needed to move my mom out of her home and into more appropriate housing, she didn’t want to go. She told me over and over that it was her home, and she wasn’t going to leave. She wasn’t susceptible to my influence, but she wasn’t competent to manage her own affairs either and she had some new friends who seemed to have too much influence.
She was very assertive, and when all else failed, she gave me her “I am your mother” voice. In the end, I tricked her into going on a vacation and staying with my dad in a care facility for a couple of weeks. After that, I was able to move her to an assisted living apartment in a memory care facility. A social worker I met with called it “therapeutic lying.”
Real estate agents are taught to cold call and to relentlessly look for and follow up with “leads.” To create “deals” and have “sales.” Real estate agents are encouraged to get people off the fence and under contract. It is possible to follow all of our rules and exploit someone with dementia at the same time.
Sometimes agents think they are helping when they are not. Salespeople with real estate licenses can be helpful.
Scamming vulnerable seniors
Our state attorney general’s office in Minnesota has some advisories for seniors about people who are not experts but salespeople who work hard to separate seniors from their money and real estate. They warn about businesses that claim to be experts specializing in seniors.
We know that seniors are targets for scams. Seniors with dementia are particularly vulnerable. Even though Realtors are held to a higher standard, there isn’t anything in the code of ethics that says it is wrong to talk someone with dementia into buying or selling real estate. In fact, it is probably outside our area of expertise to decide that someone is incompetent.
Older generations own a lot of real estate, and the number of adults in their 80s is growing rapidly. People live longer today and stay in their homes longer. My mother was 86 when I moved her out and 90 when she died. She wasn’t officially diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s until about a decade after the symptoms started.
We need to start a conversation about how to work with people who have dementia. We need to make sure they are treated the same way we would want our parents treated in a real estate transaction.
Everyone should know how to spot elder abuse and exploitation and know who to call. People with dementia may be susceptible to the influence of their family or even a real estate agent looking to make a quick sale. What happens to the people with Alzheimer’s who do not have spouses or adult children or any family at all?