Lorraine Bingham realised there was a problem when her then 74-year-old mother said she hadn’t received the local paper as normal.
“She complained she wasn’t getting the local Daily Mail, so I was like ‘why not’ and she said ‘I don’t know’,” Bingham, 55, from Hartlepool, says. “When I rang them they said she hadn’t been paying, she owed £25, so I paid the money and reinstated it.”
But the issue was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to discovering that something was wrong with her mum’s finances. Other bills, this time for gas and electric, revealed a confusing web of contracts she had taken out, stopped, then taken out again, as her memory slowly deteriorated.
“She’d been with one major firm for years, and she said she kept getting reminders off another provider. There was a reminder here and a reminder there, this letter and that letter, and when I asked her she had no idea,” Bingham recalls.
In fact there had been several switches between energy suppliers over a short period. It’s something Bingham believes should have been spotted by the energy firms involved as evidence her mum was vulnerable.
“They should have seen that and sent a letter to clarify. If they’d done that, I’d have seen it,” Bingham says. “But I just think everywhere should have some sort of dementia training.”
It’s now three years since her mother passed away, but Bingham fears another side of the family may soon encounter similar frustrations.
“My uncle is having problems now and because he’s such a private person nobody has any knowledge of his finances and stuff. It’s difficult for my cousins.”
The issue of the treatment of vulnerable elderly consumers was brought into sharp focus this week when London-based editor Rachel Holdsworth tweeted her frustration with Sky, after discovering her uncle’s bill.
“Yo, @SkyHelpTeam,” she wrote, “what kind of package would someone have to have to be paying you £110 a month.”
Her uncle, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, appeared to be paying for broadband internet despite not owning a computer. But his condition meant he couldn’t recall crucial account information, prolonging efforts to sort things out.
Holdsworth chronicled her efforts to get to the bottom of the issues, inspiring dozens of people to share their own experiences.
In the end, Sky apologised and said it would “work with her to ensure her uncle is on the best package for his needs.”
There are currently around 850,000 people in the UK with Alzheimer’s or dementia, with one in 14 of the over 65s affected. Three and a half million over 65s live alone, according to the ONS.
Other people have come forward to HuffPost since, detailing when they first realised the extent of the issues involving their elderly relatives who, while not necessarily affected by dementia, are nonetheless vulnerable.
Ex-pat Mike Kivi was stunned at the mess of his father’s tangled utilities after the 74-year-old suffered a stroke in July.
“I was back in the UK for a few weeks this summer to try and help get things into order,” Kivi tells HuffPost. “My father was put into respite care on discharge from hospital as he was unable to care for himself. I took him back to his flat to pick up some things and he had some bills which we opened and that was when I realised what was going on.”
Over the course of a few days, Kivi found his dad was signed up to multiple contracts for mobile phones and broadband. Meanwhile his mother was also subject to contracts she didn’t require.
While some providers were quick to correct some of the erroneous deals, others still seem reluctant. And Kivi, who worked with his sister to establish lasting power of attorney rights over their parent’s affairs, believes they suffered due to their age.
“They are both 74, and I’m certain they were treated this way because of that. Both are bright individuals but need things explaining slowly in order to be able to digest everything,” he says. “Things get thrown at them so quick they end up thinking they are causing a bother by asking questions and just go with the flow so they don’t feel stupid.”
Others say Holdsworth’s viral thread this week prompted them to think twice about their older relatives’ finances.
Micky, 24, who declined to give his last name, says his grandparents seemed to be paying way over the odds for their television package. “My mum was saying something wasn’t right because of how much they were paying,” he tells HuffPost. “They are paying over £100 a month just for TV.
“I saw that woman’s tweet and it just made sense. We’re frustrated. We think they’re getting ripped off and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Within a day it was revealed that despite being ardent Newcastle fans, the couple were being charged for Manchester United TV. An HD subscription was also needlessly added on. Their case has now been resolved by their provider.
“These services came to an additional £30 a month and have now been removed from the bill,” Micky says. “A lot of people will be experiencing this and won’t realise something is going wrong.”
When approached by HuffPost, both Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, and Ofgem, the energy watchdog, said they had regulations in place to help vulnerable customers - but that further measures were under consideration.
Ofcom requires all communications providers to offer third party bill management, enabling a trusted friend or relative to act on a vulnerable individual’s behalf in matters relating to their account.
Ofgem said it imposes a cap on pre-payment meter charges, has strict rules on who can be disconnected, and won’t allow vulnerable elderly customers to have heating or electricity withdrawn.
The watchdog said it was considering plans for so-called ‘safeguard’ tariffs for the some 60 percent of accounts still on poor-value standard variable rates.
In terms of getting the best deal, advice from consumer groups continues to be to ask suppliers for the cheapest tariffs.
“You don’t need a computer to find good deals, phoning up still works - even asking your current supplier for the best tariff is worth doing for some customers,” Archna Luthra of MoneySavingExpert.com says.
But Gavin Terry at the Alzheimer’s Society warned that those with dementia were all too often “paying through the nose for services”.
“It can be difficult enough for people to access the best deals, but as a society, these industries rely on customer inertia,” Terry tells HuffPost. “For someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s, they may be unaware of that account or bill in the first place.
“We do see companies taking action, with programmes which specifically support older people, as well as through our Dementia Friends scheme.
“But problems still exist.”