5 Ways to Help Older Adults Avoid Problems with Contractors

Carolynn Nagao-Marcotte is a dementia certified Aging Life Care Manager for CLO, a regional program at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services

I am a huge fan of independent contractors, because they do vital work that most of us can’t or won’t. But finding good contractors and managing them is not always easy—and older adults sometimes face unique challenges in this department.

I recently worked with an elderly woman who has significant memory impairment. She lives in an older home– quite happily most of the time– but recently had a problem with bedbugs, which was a huge issue for both her and the live-in aides she relies on.

We needed the problem fixed immediately. But, as often happens, the first treatment didn’t eradicate the problem, and the exterminator was not in a hurry to come back and do a second one.

We were told that it was a busy time. But it felt like we were being put on the back burner, behind customers who had yet to write a check for that first payment.

The exterminator was part of a national chain. After several unsuccessful calls to the local office, I took her problem to the regional office and things eventually got sorted out. But it required a good deal of follow-up and assertiveness.
I don’t claim to know the contractor’s motivation, but I do know that ageism is real, and that there is sometimes the assumption an older person won’t speak up if there is a problem, or that they can be ignored if they do.

Do you suspect that an older adult is facing similar issues? Here are five ways to help older adults avoid problems with contractors:

Well-Being Checks Knowing what’s going on in the person’s home is the first step toward being able to help, and visiting for regular well-being checks can be key. In addition to spending time with your friend or family member, it’s a chance to note the condition of their home. If there seems to be an issue that’s not being addressed, try tactfully approaching it in conversation. Don’t surprised if it takes more than once to get to the bottom of things, and remember to be respectful of their boundaries.
If home visits are impractical, well-being checks by phone can also be helpful. Pay special attention if they mention issues around the house, such as things breaking, and try to discuss their plan for fixing things. And remember to tactfully follow up; don’t assume things worked out.

Do Your Research Take some time to learn about your options. Ask friends and family in the area for recommendations, or consult websites that offer customer reviews. You can also determine if potential contractors have received complaints by checking with the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

Know the Scams The Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises that people aged 45-65 are at greatest risk for home improvement scams.
A common scam is a door-to-door contractor who claims they’re in the neighborhood with extra supplies and offers a bargain repair, only to raise the price midway, possibly threatening to walk. These are typically high-pressure sales pitches, where they want a quick answer.
A better approach is to get a second opinion before hiring a contractor, and the BBB advises checking references and insisting on a written contract that includes price, materials and timeline.

Know your Rights Hiring the right contractor is a crucial first step, because if you get a bad one the focus can easily shift to trying to contain the damage.
Some communities, such as Cambridge, have a consumer’s council, to help mediate complaints without recourse to legal action. Another potentially helpful resource is the Attorney General’s Consumer Hotline (617 727-8400), which can provide guidance on whether there’s grounds to file a complaint.

Hire a Professional If friends and family are unable to provide enough help, it could make sense to hire an Aging Life Care Manager. Previously known as Geriatric Care Managers, these are professionals who specialize in needs assessment and care management, and can essentially act as a personal concierge to help a person stay in their own home safely and comfortably.

Carolynn Nagao-Marcotte is a dementia certified Aging Life Care Manager for the CLO program at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services, a non-profit elder services agency dedicated to supporting the independence and well-being of older adults. For more information about CLO, visit the Private Care Management page at eldercare.org or call 617-628-2601 for a free consultation.