Cults focusing on the elderly are often located in states with high retirement populations like Arizona, California, and Florida, where senior citizens are separated from their friends and family-support networks. Elderly women who have lost their husbands are particularly vulnerable. Some retirement homes and nursing-care facilities have even unwittingly allowed cult recruitment to take place under their roofs, encouraging participation in cult-sponsored activities they think might be beneficial for residents. Young cult members come to senior centers and lavish attention on the elderly as the seniors' own friends and family can't because they may be living too far away.
Singer outlines a typical recruitment scenario: A widow is living alone in the house she and her husband owned. A young person starts befriending her. This person stops to talk to her, offers to help with her laundry, take her to the grocery store, and help with other household chores. Eventually, the new friend invites the widow to join a Bible study group, a yoga class, or some other group activity. Inevitably, the woman is asked to make large donations and in some cases, encouraged even to change her will.
According to Rudin, seniors are vulnerable to recruitment for many of the same reasons as adolescents, the group traditionally associated with aggressive cult recruitment. The elderly are entering a new phase in their lives and are often alone and feeling isolated. Like college students, they may find themselves in a new place without friends and family, looking for a way to connect with others and to feel needed. Cults can offer such enticements as improved health, longevity, and spiritual fulfillment. There are even cults that go so far as to claim immortality for its members; when members do die, the leaders explain that they did not join soon enough or were not giving enough of themselves (or their money) to the cult.
Rudin notes that in recent years, a number of cults have mainstreamed themselves. They no longer look like counterculture that senior citizens might easily discount as fringe movements. These cults are frequently centered around health, diet and nutrition, exercise and physical well-being, all of which are important issues for many senior citizens.
Experts and former cult members agree unanimously on what senior citizens who think they or their friends may be getting involved in a cult should do: ask questions. Rudin warns, "If an organization won't answer all your questions willingly right away, they may be hiding something." Don't alienate yourself from a friend who has become a cult member, she advises. Encourage him or her to find out information about the organization; do your own research about the group while maintaining contact with the friend. Let friends know they are not alone. Contact family members who may be attributing strange behavior to the aging process because they are unaware that their mother or father is becoming involved in a cult.
Bob, learning from his 35 years of cult experience, urges people to be more skeptical. "If someone seems to offer solutions, spiritual or otherwise, if you think they're sweet and wonderful people and [what they offer] is too good to be true, you're absolutely right." The one thing that no cult wants you to do, he says, from the perspective of his own hard-won freedom, is the one thing that will save you-"Hang on tenaciously to your autonomy."
About the author: Beth Niestat is a freelance writer and editor residing in San Francisco.
For more information about cults or to find local support groups and cult-related resources, call or write:
International Cult Education Program
P.O. Box 1232
New York, New York 10028