Not Just for Kids
By Beth Niestat
Illustration by Barbara Pollak

Cult involvement by the elderly is not restricted to those who have aged with their cults. According to Janja Lalich, a former cult member who is now a cult information specialist and consultant, the past five years have seen a marked increase in senior citizen cult involvement. "It used to be the other way around‹parents calling me about their children," she explains, "but now I get a number of calls from people concerned about their parents and older relatives." Explanations for this trend seem to point consistently to financial motivations. That is, as put by Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program at the American Family Foundation, "Cults go where the money is."
As in Joan's case, financial worth makes senior citizens highly attractive candidates for cult recruit-ment. Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist, emeritus adjunct professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, and nationally renowned expert on cults, says that "any scam known to mankind gets put into operation on the elderly." Senior citizens often have clear title to houses, cars, furniture, jewelry and other valuable assets; they receive Social Security checks, retirement checks and disability payments that are easily handed over to cult leaders.Even the elderly poor are not exempt from cult recruitment‹they can be made to forfeit food stamps and other forms of welfare payment in exchange for promises of eternal life or spiritual fulfillment.
Barbara* had just lost her father when she and her mother, age 65, were recruited by a cult. Barbara says the leader "had an incredible ability to work the Bible. He could hold an audience in the palm of his hand." This charismatic man reached the two women at a time when they were searching for a greater spirituality, telling them they were called by God and elevating their self-esteem. Barbara estimates that 25 percent of the cult members were over 50. She says their age lent an air of authority to the leader's work that gave the cult credibility and authenticity.
The approximately 100 members of Barbara's cult were under constant pressure to attend meetings, undertake biblical research and donate money. According to Barbara, "Tithing was drummed into your head morning, noon, and night." Some people routinely donated as much as 50 percent of their income to the cult. It wasn't until it became evident that the leader was obviously after her mother's estate that Barbara allowed herself and her mother to be rescued from the cult by concerned family members. "It was almost like it was a vapor," she says of the cult experience, explaining that people often don't realize the extent to which they are engulfed by it until it is too late.
In her book Cults in Our Midst, Singer estimates that there are from 3,000 to 5,000 cults in the United States today with general membership ranging between two and five million people at any given time. Exact numbers of senior citizens in cults are extremely difficult to pin down. Explains Cynthia Kisser of Chicago's Cult Awareness Network, seniors aren't as outspoken as young people about cult experiences. "It doesn't mean they're not there," she insists, "but they lack the confidence to talk about it. They feel more taken in." Seniors in particular believe they should know better, are embarrassed by their involvement, and are reluctant to admit membership.