Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Let’s ravel up some sleaves of care today! Let’s chat.
Q. My grandma thinks she’s marrying a country star: My grandmother told my family that she is talking to and going to marry the country singer Toby Keith, but that it has to be a secret because his manager doesn’t want it getting out for “bad publicity.” Multiple family members and I have tried to tell her that this is a scam—when she asked us all for $3,000 to send to Toby Keith—but she will not listen to us at all. I just don’t know what to do. She won’t answer our messages half the time because she’s mad at us, and she lives 1,000 miles away. She has fallen for other scams before and lost money, and she doesn’t have much to begin with, as most seniors don’t. Because I’m so far away, I can’t check on her regularly or convince her in person to stop this, and I have no idea what the right resources for her could be. She’s 81 and has had no real major health issues, but her mother did develop Alzheimer’s disease and I’m worried that that might be part of what’s going on here. She just texted my dad yesterday that she plans to move to Oklahoma soon to “be with Toby” and that he’s put her name on his assets. I’m worried that she’ll give up all of her banking info or something, and I have no idea how to stop it or help, and she won’t tell us any further details. What should I do?
A: Between your (very legitimate!) concerns that this could be Alzheimer’s-related and the fact that your grandmother is at least considering a possible move, this seems like an obvious time for a more strenuous intervention than just watchful waiting. That’s not to say you and the rest of your family should immediately demand full power of attorney, but you should start talking as a group about the need for an in-person visit to assess her state of mind and living conditions (if she’s out of touch with reality and it is Alzheimer’s-related; what’s the inside of her home look like; is she feeding and hydrating herself adequately; is it safe for her to drive; etc.) and a trip to the doctor. You might not be able to be the relative who checks in on her next, but this shouldn’t be only your problem to solve, and someone ought to go as soon as possible while the rest of you talk to a lawyer and look up elder resources in whichever state she currently lives. The concern that she’ll lose all her money to this bizarre scam is a real one, but it’s also an indicator that she may be at risk of wandering off and getting lost or otherwise hurting herself. Don’t put this off.
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Q. I love you, but I don’t want to hire you: I’m the middle of three adult siblings. My eldest brother wanted a change of professions, and is now licensed as a Realtor. He’s very excited about his new venture, but is finding it challenging to build his clientele. He has given out his cards and contact information to all his family and friends, asking them to distribute them to anyone who might want a realtor.
My quandary is this: My wife and I are thinking about moving in the next year or so, and neither of us want to hire my brother. I had a close personal friend serve as my Realtor decades ago, and while the transaction went well, I discovered I was very uncomfortable blurring the lines between a personal and professional relationship. While I love and wish to support my brother, I would much rather work with someone with whom I have no family history (or baggage!). I’m concerned he wouldn’t take our direction or constructive criticism well, and that he’d try to manage things not as we would like, but how he, as my “big brother,” thinks they should go. Should things not go well, I don’t think I’d be able to terminate our business relationship without seriously souring my relationship with my brother, and possibly dragging the rest of the family into it as well. My wife agrees that my brother will take it very personally, and be very hurt and angry, if we don’t hire him as our realtor. I don’t know that there’s a magic script to make it all better, but are our concerns unreasonable, or do you have any suggestions on how to approach this with my brother when the time comes?
A: Your concerns sound incredibly reasonable! “I don’t want to work with a family member” is a perfectly sound stance to take; “I don’t want to work with a family member who just switched careers, has little to no track record in his new field, doesn’t take constructive criticism well, and takes things personally” is beyond sound. Don’t hire your brother! I think you’re right in assuming he’ll get defensive, and to that end I think it might be best to get things out of the way now, rather than when you’re in the middle of a move. Wish him the best in his new venture but make it clear that you want to work with someone you have no preexisting relationship with, allow him to get mad over something unreasonable without rushing to make him feel better, such that by the time you actually do need a Realtor, you’ll have this fight (mostly, if not entirely) in the rearview mirror.
Q. Talking about relationship problems with friends: I recently argued with my partner about whether it’s acceptable to discuss problems in a relationship with friends. My partner thinks that doing so will turn the friend against the partner, and that the friend will just start to think that the relationship is no good, that doing so is gossiping, and that it’s a violation of privacy. I think that as long as you don’t reveal personal details about your partner that they would prefer to keep secret, discussing problems with a friend can help you process difficult events, get some perspective, and help you reach decisions.
A: There’s not an actual question here, although I’ll take your submission of this information as at least an implied question of “Who’s right?” Part of your difficulty might stem from the wide possible definition of “problems” under discussion—that might mean anything from “we disagreed about Y last week” to “I seriously doubt my boyfriend’s character and think he’s the most annoying man I’ve ever met.” But as a general rule, acknowledging that one’s romantic relationship is not merely an endless bed of roses is not guaranteed to “turn” one’s friends against one’s partner—fights and quarrels are inevitable, not an indicator that one’s relationship is uniquely and irreparably flawed.
I’m much more of your camp than your partner’s, and I think you should be honest with them about your disagreement: “I won’t reveal any personal details and I’m not interested in these conversations because I want to make you look bad to someone else, but I find discussing my relationship problems with my friends helps me get perspective and make better decisions. I’m not looking for reasons to sell you out or ‘turn’ anyone against you, but I think you’re conflating privacy with secrecy to a degree I just can’t agree with, and I hope you’ll reconsider for your own sake—you might find that occasionally talking to a friend about a problem we’re facing is helpful, and that it’s entirely possible to do so without selling me out or convincing your friend that I’m a jerk.”
Q. Anxious friend “stealing” medical conditions: My close friend has debilitating medical anxiety (she is medicated for it, sees a psychologist, the whole nine yards). The pandemic obviously did a number on her nerves, but the way this has manifested has become unmanageable: She made an emergency appointment with a specialist for an unbelievably common ailment (for which she had not tried the obvious, available treatment—think not taking an Advil for a headache and instead going to a neurologist). She also “steals” medical conditions—I have a fairly niche, very mild allergy that she is now also anxious she has, with no evidence. This has happened before. I am very annoyed by this. I do not think I am being totally reasonable—she is not having a good time, is genuinely worried—but it also feels attention-seeking, especially when it’s 1) all she can talk about, and 2) a condition I actually have. I have not yet chided her—and chiding will not be effective!—but I am reaching the end of my patience.
Can I ask her to stop talking to me about ailments I also have? Or to stop telling me when she is worried she has something and wait until she’s been diagnosed? If she actually has something, I don’t want to fail at supporting her (which I feel like I’m doing with the anxiety) but this is really grinding my gears. Do I just need to get over myself?
A: It seems likely that your friend’s debilitating anxiety includes some form of hypochondria! I realize that term is sometimes colloquially used to dismiss someone, which I don’t mean to do here—her distress over her health is very real, and it’s not at all uncommon for someone suffering from hypochondria to hyperfixate and worry about the symptoms of illnesses their friends or family may have. This may be “attention-seeking” inasmuch as she’s seeking medical attention for conditions she’s unlikely to have, but it seems clear that this attention-seeking is not malicious or frivolous. That doesn’t mean you have to like this strange new dynamic, or that you can’t set limits with her, but I don’t think you should treat this as simply an annoying quirk she needs to be reprimanded for.
Certainly you might say that you think it’s been counterproductive to go into details about your own allergies (the condition, the symptoms, the treatments, etc.) and that you think it would be better for both your peace of mind to stop discussing it. Since you’re generally supportive of her experience with anxiety and it seems like you two have a fairly solid friendship, you might ask her whether she’s spoken to her doctor about the possibility that her anxiety might be affecting her ongoing distress and concern that she’s falling ill. But while her distress is clearly real, you’re quite right to wonder whether it’s actually useful to her treatment/recovery to indulge in long, speculative discussions about possible symptoms, and to want to stop joining her in them. You can do so while treating her with compassion; it doesn’t have to look like a cruel dismissal, some variation on “You’re fine, walk it off.”
Q. Stay or go? I’m 22 and I’ve been with my lovely boyfriend “Fred” for a little over three years, minus a couple months when we took a break at the beginning of the pandemic. He’s wonderful—so kind and understanding, listens to me and makes me laugh, a feminist, and aligns with my political views. I don’t want to lose him. Fred is so good and kind to me, and we complement each other very well.
But I also feel like I want to be single. Or in a relationship with a woman. I’ve known that I’m bisexual for all of our relationship, and Fred was actually the first person I ever told. He’s never been anything but supportive and I don’t feel like I need to hide that part of myself. Our relationship is healthy and we trust each other, but I can’t shake this feeling that I want to be single and out meeting other people, or that I finally want to kiss a girl. Fred is the only person I’ve ever kissed and isn’t very keen on opening the relationship, although he wouldn’t mind a one night stand with a third person. How do I balance these feelings of wanting to be free and single and flirty with wanting to keep Fred and build a life with him? How do I know if these feelings are something I should listen to? I feel like I met Fred too early in life, and I don’t know how to balance the feelings of loving him deeply with wanting to see who else is out there in the world, especially when nothing is wrong with our relationship.
A: This is a classic problem, especially from someone at your age and stage in life, which doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for you to resolve on an individual level. But it’s true that some of the things you want are mutually exclusive, even allowing for the possibility of a modified open relationship. You can’t date Fred and be single at the same time; you can’t stay in this relationship and also remain open to the possibility of a relationship with a woman. You don’t have the option of saying, “Well, Fred was always kind of a drip” and moving on casually; you really do care for him and he suits you in many ways, so if you decide to end things in favor of pursuing the unknown, you know you’ll also suffer a certain degree of loss (although it’s not impossible that you’ll be able to reconnect as friends a few months or years down the line). But “I want to be single, I want to meet other people, and I specifically want to kiss other women, and the idea of doing so via occasional and tightly controlled threesomes with strangers doesn’t appeal to me” is a sound, serious reason to consider ending a relationship, even if it’s been on balance a great relationship and you still care for the person you want to leave.
Q. Found letters could cause distress for family: After a family member recently passed, I came across letters that they wrote about other family members in a very unforgiving light. I have no doubt the family member loved each person that was described in the letters, but I think it would do more harm than good to present these writings to the others. A close family member has already inquired about seeing the letters, but the way she is described I think would devastate her, especially considering that the letter writer died so recently. What is the best course of action? Keep the letters locked up? Say, “Read at your own risk”? I don’t want to throw them out.
A: I answered a similar question a few weeks ago from a letter writer who had found evidence that their recently deceased parents had withheld important personal, professional, and medical information from their children over the course of at least 20 years. In that case, I encouraged the letter writer to present their siblings with the option of learning more while flagging the possibility that these documents might prove immensely painful, and handing over anything medical-related automatically. In this situation, especially as it doesn’t sound like these letters were intended for the relatives under discussion (under fire? under scrutiny?), but rather a third party, you might want to contact the addressee and ask if they want them first.
If these were letters addressed to the people disparaged within, of the “write out your angriest feelings and then don’t send them” variety, it might make the most sense to consider them journal entries that were never intended to be read. If there are other papers or letters ready for public family consumption, you might pass those along while holding the others in reserve and considering the possibility of destroying them. I realize this assumes you’ve been made an executor of some sort for your late relative’s estate. If that’s not the case, and you don’t have official discretion to distribute her effects, I think the best available move is to say “Read at your own risk—I wish I hadn’t.” Sometimes people will still want to know the worst, but at least they’ll have gotten a heads-up ahead of time.
Q. Re: My grandma thinks she’s marrying a country star: Toby Keith is already married to Tricia Lucas Covel, and has been since 1984. They have children and grandchildren together. Find some articles about their 37 years of “wedded bliss” and send them to Grandma. If she’s this far gone, reality may not help, but the fact that the con is so easily and obviously proven false gives you an opening. And if she values fidelity, she may get mad that Toby is cheating and lied to her.
A: I appreciate the optimism here, but I think if an elderly woman with a family history of Alzheimer’s truly believes she is communicating online with Toby Keith, showing her an article that he’s married to someone else is not going to change anything—it certainly can’t replace a trip to the doctor. At best, it would alienate her and make her feel crowded and dismissed; I think the letter writer’s goals here should be to learn more about their grandmother’s needs, not to “score” a point in an argument.
Q. Re: My grandma thinks she’s marrying a country star: Elder law attorney here: Even from 1,000 miles away, you can report this type of scam to the local adult protective services for Grandma and ask them for help; they can be invaluable in cases like this. If there are no relatives or close friends where Grandma lives, what about a church, garden club, etc.? Is there any social network for Grandma? Does Grandma have any friends you can call? Also, if the scam involves the mail in any way, report to the U.S. Postal Inspector. If through the computer, report to the FTC and FBI—IC3. If via phone, to the FTC. Also, it’s a common misconception that you can “demand a full power of attorney over someone.” Powers of attorney can only be given by the person, not demanded by their relatives. If she’s too far gone, the family can demand a conservatorship or guardianship through the courts.
Finally, most elders who fall for scams are not suffering from any form of Alzheimer’s or dementia and are perfectly sane and of sound mind. They are just vulnerable. Vulnerable and incompetent are not the same thing.
A: Thank you so much for this; I hope that proves helpful to the letter writer. And while I do take the particular details of this individual fantasy as cause for concern given her family history, I take your point that it’s not a slam-dunk indicator that she’s developed Alzheimer’s as well, and that falling for a scam shouldn’t be taken as a replacement for a formal diagnosis.
Q. Update—Re: Family friend isn’t mine: You may remember I had a family friend, Moe, who would drive past my house all the time and be generally inconvenient to my family. A good update: Moe learned how to call my parents about dropping things off or driving by! Unfortunately, he only learned that after he dropped by my house when I was violently ill a month ago, to the point where my mother had to stay for a week to care for me. (Not COVID but ugh.) He started banging on the door loudly and wouldn’t stop even when we didn’t answer. My mom came out to tear him a new one for assuming a car in the driveway meant he could visit. My dad later sat Moe down to lay down the law, and I am now free of Moe’s impositions. It’s been a solid month of boundaries being respected and I hope it stays that way.
A: I hope it stays that way too! Given that Moe is a family friend, it seems appropriate for your parents to have stepped in, and while it should never have come to that, I’m glad to hear that getting chewed out separately by both your mother and your father seems to have gotten through to him. If he starts “forgetting” last month’s lessons, feel free to remind him in no uncertain terms.
Q. Secret pregnancy: A friend of mine is pregnant as a result of a one night stand with an acquaintance. She is planning to become a single mom. She has so far refused to tell the father of her child because she doesn’t want to “burden” him when she is happy to raise the baby alone. He’s a decent guy, he just doesn’t ever want to get married or have a relationship, so she keeps saying she feels bad to shock him with the news. I feel like it’s so wrong to keep something like this from him. Even if he decides he wants nothing to do with the baby, I feel like he should at least know and make his own decision. Would it be totally out of line for me to tell him myself? I am a firm believer in minding my own business, but I feel it’s completely wrong to keep this guy in the dark and have the decision made for him that he’s going to have nothing to do with his child. If it were me I would be completely outraged that someone prevented me from getting to know my own child. Read what Prudie had to say.
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.