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Dementia patients' wives battle Sun Life, BMO over costly missteps

Two women with spouses devastated by the effects of dementia are outraged at large financial institutions for not showing compassion after their loved ones made large, irrational transactions that cost their families dearly.

Companies make things right, after families go public over loved ones' irrational transactions

Dementia patients' wives battle finance companies

9 years ago
Duration 1:50
Sun Life, BMO make things right, after families go public over loved ones' irrational transactions

Two women devastated by the effects of dementia in their loved ones found themselves at their wits' end with large financial institutions, which they said did nothing to help after their spouses made irrational transactions that cost them dearly. 

"It leaves you with a feeling of being very powerless in the face of big business," said Debbie Radloff-Gabriel, from Kingston, Ont.

Sun Life repeatedly refused to undo the damage to her family's finances, despite her pleas and medical evidence about her husband's illness. 

"We were vulnerable … and we had no recourse," she said.

Sun Life repeatedly refused to make things right for the Gabriel family, but after questions from Go Public it has promised to reinstate both policies. (CBC)

The company didn't make things right until contacted by Go Public. Radloff-Gabriel had fought Sun Life for four years, after her husband inexplicably cancelled his life insurance.

Bruce Gabriel has Alzheimer's and vascular dementia. As his mind was slipping, in 2010, he called up his insurance agent — when his wife was away at work — to cancel his two policies.

He had paid more than $17,000 in premiums since 1983 and cashed in for less than $2,000 on policies that would have paid his family $140,000 when he dies.

'A terrible shock'

"It was totally out of character, and it was a terrible shock for me and for us as a family," said Radloff-Gabriel.

It left Gabriel slowly dying from his illnesses, with no insurance. He couldn't get new policies, because of his condition.

"I feel like we were stolen from," Gabriel said, while obviously struggling to express his views.

"It robs us of that sense of security," his wife said. "We are already dealing with so many losses and challenges day to day."

Gabriel, 64, is a lawyer and former insurance agent. He can't work anymore and needs full-time care.

"When Mr. Gabriel cancelled his policies … his mind was impaired by a dementing process, which had accelerated quickly," wrote Dr. Brian McDonald, a specialist in psychiatry, in a 2011 letter to Sun Life.

"He was not competent to make such a momentous decision, with such financial consequences, for his family at that time."

Judy Alsager lost her husband Richard Keep last month. Until Go Public got involved, BMO was taking steps to force the sale of her property over unpaid payments for an expensive SUV he had purchased impulsively. (CBC)

"Given the extent of his impairment … I can say with confidence that Mr. Gabriel must have had symptoms of dementia at the time that his insurance policies were cancelled," wrote another geriatric psychiatry specialist who went to bat for him with Sun Life in 2012.

Sun Life won't budge, then an about turn

Because Gabriel wasn't fully tested until three months after the policy cancellation, though, the doctors' letters weren't enough proof for the company.

"These do not provide any new evidence that your husband was incompetent and therefore, incapable of making the decision he made," Sun Life wrote to Radloff-Gabriel in 2012.

More rejections came in subsequent letters, after she appealed to two ombudsmen. However, as a result of Go Public's inquiries, Sun Life has now changed its position.

"We are making an exception on compassionate grounds in this unique case," said spokeswoman Carmela Antolino.

"We are prepared to reinstate Mr. Gabriel's two life insurance policies.… Our thoughts‎ are with the Gabriel family as they deal with this condition."

Similar story with B.C. vehicle loan

Judy Alsager of Williams Lake, B.C., had similar frustrations with the Bank of Montreal.

Her husband Richard Keep died last month from a brain tumour. She said he'd suffered for five years, with dementia, initially diagnosed as the effect of Parkinsons.

Richard Keep suffered for years from dementia and died of a brain tumour. (CBC)

In 2012, at age 76, his wife said Keep impulsively went into the local Toyota dealership and financed a new Highlander — without her knowledge — even though he already had a car.

"He did very crazy things, which lots of people do with dementia," said Alsager.

"He was agitated. Couldn't sit still. Wanted to get things done right now. Wanted to buy things, but didn't have the funds. Other people noticed it. I don't understand how you could sit with him as a salesman and not see this."

The BMO financing was almost $70,000, with monthly payments of $800 over seven years.

"At that point, a doctor had told him, 'You have already outlived how long you should have lived,' just with the Parkinsons," said the widow.

Alsager went into the dealership immediately, insisting it cancel the deal, and it agreed.

"I had offered to reverse the contracts and I would take the vehicle. It would essentially cancel the deal and he would owe no money," said general manager Gerald Overton of Heartland Toyota.

Overton said he ultimately couldn't do that, though, because Keep wouldn't agree and the vehicle was in his name.

Keep financed this new Toyota Highlander for $70,000 while his wife says he was suffering the effects of his illnesses. (CBC)

Alsager said her husband wouldn't give her power of attorney and she was unable to have him declared incompetent, until it was too late. She said her husband's driver's licence was revoked, because of his impairments. Keep also didn't make the loan payments.

BMO moved to take home, then made it right

The Toyota has been sitting unused, Alsager said, but instead of repossessing it, BMO's law firm went to court to force the sale of her home.

"I've sent them a letter saying come and get the car, and they never responded," said Alsager.

In her letter to BMO's lawyer, she described her husband's illnesses and informed him he was unable to defend himself in a legal action against a bank.

The lawyer wrote back — to her husband — saying he couldn't speak to her without signed consent from him. After being contacted by Go Public, however, BMO told Alsager she can now return the vehicle to Heartland Toyota and she will be off the hook.

After Go Public alerted BMO to Alsager’s dilemma, it offered to remove the lien on her house and forgive the debt if she returned the vehicle to the dealership. (CBC)

"I am pleased to advise that the dealership will be in touch with you to arrange to have the Toyota Highlander returned to them," wrote J. Raymond O'Kane, BMO's managing director and head of retail automotive finance.

"BMO will [then] arrange for the full car loan amount to be paid out and we will discharge the lien on your property."

Compassion needed, says advocacy group

The Alzheimer Society is calling on all financial institutions to be more compassionate and flexible, as the number of Canadians with dementia is expected to double in coming years.

"There 's a loss of executive function, the ability to make complex decisions, to understand financial transactions," said David Harvey, of the Alzheimer Society in Ontario.

He suggests large companies can and should step up after the fact to reverse or mitigate financial damage to a family where there is medical evidence of cognitive impairment.

David Harvey of the Alzheimer Society of Ontario says financial institutions need better, more flexible policies that recognize the challenges facing clients with dementia. (CBC)

"These large institutions need to put in place good basic consumer protections … a cooling-off period for example, when contracts can be annulled," Harvey said.

"It certainly is time for us to review these policies and to update them, given our changing knowledge of cognitive impairment and the risks related to our aging population."

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Kathy Tomlinson worked as an investigative reporter at CBC for more than a decade.