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The cable company's cruel intentions: My mother had a stroke, and Comcast wouldn’t let us cancel her account

Faced with a family crisis, we found many people who were kind and helpful — just not at the cable company


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Erik Lundegaard
November 13, 2016 8:00PM (UTC)

This is the story of how a corporation insinuated itself into one of the worst weeks our family has been through.

My mother, who's 86, suffered a stroke during the last weekend of September. She lives alone in a 55-and-over condo in Richfield, Minnesota, and Monday morning my sister Karen found her on her bedroom floor unable to move or speak. She was in shock, terrified. The Sunday Star Tribune was still on her front stoop.

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Twice on Saturday I’d phoned from Seattle, where I live, but she’d never picked up. Some part of me thought about calling Karen then, to check up on her, but I never did. So when Karen phoned Monday morning with the news, guilt and shame washed over me. By Tuesday evening I was by her side in her room in the neuro unit at Hennepin County Medical Center. She was shrunken, bruised, hooked up to two IVs and a heart monitor. She kept clutching my hand with both of hers. She wouldn’t let go.

It was circle-of-life stuff. I fed her pureed food and wiped her mouth. I sang her the “ABC” song and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” hoping for a response. She couldn’t talk, other than gibberish, but she kept trying to communicate with her eyes. She pleaded with them. “Get me out of here,” her eyes often said. Sometimes I thought “here” meant the hospital; sometimes I thought it meant life.

We kept getting contradictory information. On Wednesday afternoon, the attending neurologist, trailed by a team of med students, mentioned in passing the decision we’d been waiting for: subacute rehab, meaning a nursing home and slim chance for a full recovery. He said she would be discharged the next day; someone would come by with recommendations for facilities. We waited until 7:00 that night; no one came. The next morning, we were greeted by a chipper woman who gave us a gleaming folder with pamphlets explaining what a stroke was. It was Day 4 and she was a Day 1 person.

My sister and I had one advantage most people don’t: We’re both journalists so we ask questions for a living. That’s what we did all day Thursday. Which nursing homes were good? How much therapy was needed? Some were willing to talk — off the record. Some suggested the discharge date, now Friday, was flexible if a nursing home didn’t have a bed available until Saturday or Monday. Then things shifted. Seeming allies became threatening, and the soft discharge date became as hard as a rock. It felt like we were holding back the bureaucratic machinery of the hospital, which wanted to expel my mother ASAP, while simultaneously opening as many doors to as many nursing homes as possible, trying to find one where she would be safe. It’s a rotten system.

Then there was the financial stress. And this is where Comcast comes in.

Friday morning, my sister and I went over to my mother’s condo. We’d lucked out — found a bed at a great rehab unit in a nursing home near Cedar Lake — but now we needed exact figures for her monthly income: Social Security, along with two small pensions from her 50-plus years as a nurse. There were stacks of bills all over her dining room table. I noticed one from Comcast: $126. Had she missed a month? No, this was for one month. One month? For just cable TV? I looked over at her small HDTV, on which she watched maybe a dozen channels, and said, “We’re canceling this now.”

It took about five minutes of press-1, press-2 hoops before I finally got a rep on the line. Initially she told me I couldn’t cancel my mother’s account because I wasn’t on the account. When I explained the situation — stroke, unable to speak — she expressed sympathy, then asked a series of questions. Then she asked: “Do you have power of attorney?”

“Excuse me?”

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To cancel my mother’s account, I was told, I needed to take the cable box and remote to the nearest Xfinity office, along with proof of power of attorney, and then they’d be happy to do it.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“What?” Karen asked.

I held the phone near my chest. “Do you have power of attorney for mom?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Maybe. Why?”

“They say we can’t cancel without it.”

Karen’s eyes widened and got combative. It was almost a relief, really. For a week, we’d been dealing with a bureaucratic machine that was often inept and contradictory, but, you know, trying. There were no villains there. Now, a corporation was offering itself as one. It may have been the most valuable service Comcast ever offered.

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“Look,” I said into the phone, “I’m not trying to take money out of my mother’s bank account or anything. I’m just trying to cancel a service.”

Comcast’s policy was repeated. I was told Comcast was just trying to protect my mother’s information.

Over the weekend, I felt a slight trepidation whenever we tried canceling other services. Would they want to see power of attorney, too? In this instance, no. The local newspaper, her phone service, asked for name, account number, address, last four of Social. Nothing took longer than five minutes.

So Monday morning I tried Comcast again. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding. Maybe I’d have better luck in person. At the nearest Xfinity office, I signed in, stood with cable box and remote, waited my turn. The room was full of people holding their cable boxes, looking frustrated. Every once in a while, you’d lock eyes with someone else and shake your heads together in commiseration. At the same time, this wasn’t the fault of the people who worked there; they just got the grief. I felt bad for them.

Until it was my turn.

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“You were told to bring power of attorney,” the rep admonished me after he looked up my mother’s account.

“Yes,” I said, “but we don’t have it and my mother can’t give it.” I got a blank look. “Over the weekend we’ve canceled my mother’s cell phone, her newspaper. No other company is asking for power of attorney.” Still blank. “Surely, Comcast isn’t going to keep billing my mother in perpetuity for a service she can’t use.” Nada.

“OK. Is there a manager I can talk to?”

“She’s not in.”

“When will she be in?”

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“Later.”

Later? What does that mean? This afternoon? Tonight?”

He sighed heavily. “Like around 11:30.” It was 10:30.

He suggested I try phoning Comcast’s customer service line again. When I did, in the parking lot outside, they suggested I try visiting the nearest Xfinity office.

“I’m outside one right now,” I said. “Look, is there someone higher up I could talk to?”

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“I can transfer you to the cancellations department,” I was told, “but they can’t do anything.”

It was a beautiful October morning, crisp and clear, and I was sitting halfway out the door in the backseat of my mother’s SUV. At one point I realized I wasn’t far from the place — the long defunct Korner Plaza — where my mother had bought me my first baseball glove. I thought of her in the nursing home. Was she lonely? Scared? Instead of being with her, I was in this parking lot, listening to the same message over and over. Comcast was currently helping someone else: “Please hold, so we can give you the same special attention.”

I finally got it: a rep named Robert who was more sympathetic, or at least pragmatic, than the others. He put me on hold for another 5-10 minutes, but when he returned he was able to finally, irrevocably, cancel my mother’s account. He added: No need to wait in line at the Xfinity office, either; just drop the stuff in the dropbox. I thanked him, exhaled deeply, shook my head, and then went looking for the dropbox.

“They took it away six months ago,” a rep told me after I waited in line again.

All in all, during a week in which I had no time to spare, it had taken Comcast almost two hours of my time to perform this very simple task of customer service.

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In the weeks that followed, we found out it wasn’t just Comcast. My sister ran into massive headaches trying to cancel our mother’s car insurance through The Hartford as well as remove a late charge on an otherwise paid-in-full Talbot’s card. Three service reps in a row refused to discuss the Talbot’s account, which will presumably rack up months of late charges and then be sent to credit bureaus. The standard line is that they are protecting our mother’s information. It’s a rotten system.

Though the first week was rough, I still felt profoundly grateful. I kept saying “thank you” to nurses and therapists, and to friends and family. I said “thank you” aloud to LBJ for Medicare and Medicaid, and to FDR for Social Security.

To Comcast, and to other companies who waste our time when we have no time, I have a different two-word phrase.

 


Erik Lundegaard

Erik Lundegaard's work has been published by MSNBC, MSN, Slate, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Believer and others.

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