When my Mom called Friday night to tell me that my Great Grandpa was in the hospital because of a heart attack, I honestly wasn’t too concerned. Even at age 93 I knew he’d make it through. He always does. Saturday I woke up to eight missed calls and immediately thought oh my god someone died. It hit me. He wasn’t going to make it.
My Grandpa died alone and broke because someone stole his entire savings. She stole my Great-Grandparents’ money and independence. Her actions also greatly affected my Mom and Bamma (their daughter).
My Great Grandparents are victims of elder abuse and the perpetrator will be sentenced on Wednesday. Since they are unable to speak, my hope is to tell their story for them.
This year my Great Grandparents will be married for 74 years. My Grandpa, Ray, served in WWII. After the war he returned to northeastern Ohio where we he owned his own surveying business; you can still see his building in Painesville, Ohio. During WWII my Great Grandma, Eleanor, gave birth to my Grandma (my Bamma), Barbara. Later they would have a son.
My Great Grandparents were awesome. They lived in Ohio but would spend most of the bitter winters in Florida, which I loved because my family lived in Texas during that time; my Mom would take us kids to visit them. Me and my Grandpa would play Go-Fish for hours. Insisting he needed a drink of water, my Grandpa would sneak exaggerated glances at my cards as he walked around the round table. Every night we watched Wheel of Fortune. During the winter my Grandma would send us oranges and grapefruits through the mail. Illegal for sure, but my Grandma didn’t care. Grandpa would tell me stories of living through the Great Depression; my favorite tale being when he painted his ankles with shoe polish to conceal the fact that his family couldn’t afford socks. I remember when he bought an Apple computer and we sat together laughing at how the machine pronounced “Ray Dillworth” in its robot voice. He always had to have the newest technology; my Bamma told me that he owned the first color TV in their small town of Thompson, Ohio. They loved John Wayne movies and even had a framed picture of the western star hung up in their hallway.
Over the past 15 years or so my Grandma started losing her memory. At the time I didn’t understand dementia–I thought it was just a phase and the mind would return–but it progressively got worse. During visits she transitioned from asking if we wanted a soda a couple of times to asking for our names. My Grandpa’s mind remained strong, but his health was terrible. Every night my Grandma still walked their property, around the ponds my Grandpa had made and the beautiful gardens he maintained. I didn’t realize how bad things were until I saw my Grandfather unable to tend to his lawn anymore. Together they sat in their matching armchairs each night after dinner.
Three years ago my Grandma’s health regressed so badly that she now needed 24 hour care. I was heartbroken when I learned that she accidentally threw away her wedding ring. Initially, Grandpa put Grandma in a nursing home because he was weary of strangers. Because of the terrible care she was given, Grandma moved back to their house a few months later. My Grandfather, having saved his money for all those years knowing my Grandmother would eventually need round-the-clock care, hired in-home nurses to be at the house at every hour; the price of her care being $240/day. Fiercely independent, he hated the fact that strangers were in his home, but knew my Grandma needed the care. She was unable to really move at this point, scarcely the Grandma of my youth who always gave us hugs, kisses, and secret candy. You know those awesome Grandma hugs? The ones where you’re held so tightly you can’t breathe but you feel so loved. The room she now slept in was my old room that I used when I stayed over. Her new bed was in my old bed’s spot, the place where my Grandma would read to me–our favorite was A Very Hungry Caterpillar–as well as the old dollhouse that Grandpa made from a TV that only I was allowed to play with. All of the little house’s quilts, curtains, and rugs were handmade by my Grandma.
Initially our cousin was taking care of Grandma, but she proved to be inept at the job. Michelle Baker was hired to work part time then took over after Grandpa fired our cousin. He immediately fell for Michelle. He really took a liking to her which she would eventually abuse and use to her gain. She, along with a couple of other nurses and my Mom (as well as my sister when in town), split each day at my Grandparents’ house. When I visited for my sister’s wedding I realized that my Grandfather wasn’t as sharp as he used to be. Wearing the same shirt a couple of days in a row, he sometimes struggled to finish sentences. We still talked about his time in South Carolina and how the Cavs were playing, but for the first time I actually saw that my Grandpa was aging. My Grandma was in great care, finally looking like herself with her hair styled and her bed covered with blue blankets. She always loved blue; she had every shade of blue pantsuit you can imagine. While she couldn’t really speak, while I was there she (out of the blue!) swore at my Grandpa in Hungarian. Just like she used to when we were younger, giving him the eye from across the table while he laughed. On one of my last visits she met her Great-Great-Granddaughter Caroline. Hearing the baby cry, Grandma actually opened her eyes and said my baby.
Michelle ran everything–the schedule, payments, and helping out Grandpa. She accompanied him on trips to the casino and even to my sister’s wedding. She could do no wrong in his eyes and flirted with him constantly. Michelle began stealing in 2013, but with Bamma being sick and Grandpa now fully trusting her (including giving her full access to his finances) she started becoming bolder. She went from occasionally using Grandpa’s car to setting up fake accounts to launder money from their savings. When speaking to banks she would claim to be his daughter or granddaughter.
Becoming suspicious of Michelle’s increasingly erratic behavior, Bamma found that Michelle had stolen over half a million dollars from my Grandparents, essentially leaving them penniless.
My Grandma moved in to my Mom’s house this January, forcing my Mom to be her 24 hour nurse; there was no money left to pay anyone and Mom couldn’t stomach Grandma being placed in a state facility. My once proud and independent Grandfather was now on food stamps, leaving Bamma to pay the bills that Social Security didn’t cover.When she realized that she was busted, Michelle stole the final month of caregiver pay; Grandpa’s Buick was sold to help pay the last month of wages. My final visit before moving overseas I bought Grandpa groceries and laid his medicine out for him, although I doubt he took it. He lost Medicare Part B because he couldn’t afford the monthly payment of $240. Worried about the upcoming winter, I asked how heat was going to be covered considering the older, drafty house. He’s on oxygen, my Mom said, it’s illegal for them to turn off the electricity.
Michelle confessed to stealing the money both in person and online. She managed to steal my Grandparents’ entire life savings. She forged checks, used their Sears account, and withdrew cash. Money was spent on presents for her children, a trip to Florida for her boyfriend, they even attempted to buy a condo… Money spent for the care of my Grandma, married to my Grandpa for 74 years. There are even surveillance videos of Michelle leaving a casino; she lost over $476,000 in one year alone. Sitting across from me at my own sister’s wedding, she spoke of how much she respected my Grandparents; not too long after she would begin draining their accounts.
According to the CDC, elder abuse is defined as an intentional act, or failure to act, by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult. The Older Americans Act of 2006 defines elder financial abuse as the fraudulent or otherwise illegal, unauthorized, or improper act or process of an individual, including a caregiver or fiduciary, that uses the resources of an older individual for monetary or personal benefit, profit, or gain, or that results in depriving an older individual of rightful access to, or use of, benefits, resources, belongings, or assets. What the definition doesn’t include is the impact of these actions on the family. My mother is a essentially a prisoner in her own home, slowly watching her grandmother die. My beautiful, sassy, wonderful Grandma now reduced to not knowing her name or my Mom. My Grandfather, having served in WWII, now sitting alone and receiving deliveries from Meals on Wheels. My Bamma, struggling to figure out how to account for all of this corruption, now speaking with lawyers and banks on what to do, nervously wringing her arthritic hands whenever we speak on Facetime.
Even after Michelle was arrested, my Grandpa still claimed that she hadn’t stolen it all. I honestly just don’t think he had the mental capacity to both comprehend the situation and understand the impact. Now, at age 93, he constantly accused my Bamma of stealing his savings–even maintaining Michelle’s innocence after seeing the confession and speaking to the Prosecutor–so confused about everything. I believe the combination of his crush on her (a much younger woman fawning over him) and that he felt sorry for her (she had two children by her cheating boyfriend in 11 months) fed into his confusion. She blatantly used his affection and growing dementia to take everything.
My Grandpa had a heart attack during the first big Ohio snowstorm. After being rushed to the hospital, he had a difficult time recovering because his veins were so weak. He suffered another heart attack later that day and was revived, but his heart just could no longer keep him alive. Because of the snow, my family was unable to drive to the hospital. My Grandpa, one of the most caring and funny men I’ve ever met, died alone. I wish I could have driven there, Bamma said to me yesterday, I hope my father didn’t die thinking I stole from him.
I can’t even imagine that feeling. I can’t begin to think about what my Bamma is going through. I can’t begin to understand what my Mom is going through, having to take care of my Grandma all day, every day as she grows more angry and her health continues to decline. Now she doesn’t even know she’s a widow. She couldn’t say goodbye to her husband of 74 years. Grandpa died without even a final visit to my Grandma.
Michelle Baker took everything from my Grandparents, my Mom, and my Bamma. I want to tell this story because they can’t. I want to tell this story because one in every five people over the age of 65 are victims of financial fraud and yet there are no statistics on the exact amount of abuse or prosecutions. My Grandparents were clearly not in the right state of mind and this woman mercilessly preyed on them as a source of income. A woman trusted for the care of his wife, Michelle drained the funds for Grandma’s health and spent the money on trips across the United States and salon appointments for her hair.
She has been charged with three felonies: theft from a protected person, money laundering, and misuse of a credit card. In order to save the county money, she will not have a trial with a jury. Michelle was also offered a plea bargain; her sentencing is this Wednesday. Even if she’s given the full sentence, it doesn’t change what has happened. There is no real justice to be had. She can’t take back what has happened to my Grandfather struggling to survive and dying alone or my Grandmother out of her own home and away from her husband now at the end of her life. Or my Mom. Or my Bamma. My Grandparents’ house Bamma was hoping to stay in the family that she is now forced to sell. Michelle should be held accountable for her actions, even if it doesn’t bring any of it back. She destroyed their lives because she was selfish. Because she could.
I never thought this would happen to my Grandparents, but I guess that’s every story. Thank you for reading their story. I only can hope that on Wednesday justice is served, even if its too late to save my Grandparents.
Grandpa thank you for always believing in me. Telling me how smart I am and making me laugh. I hope in the end you knew that we were all there with you. I am so sorry that all of this happened. But we are going to try as hard as we can to make sure she can’t do this to anyone else.
Listening to: The End Of Love by Alexandre Desplat