Financial Abuse: Do You Know the Signs?
telemarketers and Internet schemers aren't the only groups
ripping off older Americans' hard-earned money. The most
common culprit is closer to home. Family members are the
abusers more often than any other group. Here's a typical
After his divorce, Michael,
52, moved in with Rosa, his 79-year-old mother. Within
months, Michael had control over Rosa's Social Security
checks and meager pension, didn't allow Rosa to see
visitors, and locked her in her room when he left the
house. (Adult Protective Services case. Names changed to
A comprehensive report
The National Elder Abuse Incidence Study, released in
1998 found that 60% of those financially abusing the
elderly were adult children. In-home care providers are
the second largest group; it's unknown how many of those
are family members.
U.S. Administration on Aging defines financial abuse
as the improper act or process of using an older person's
monetary resources without consent, for another's benefit.
It's estimated there are as many as five million victims a
More are at risk
Elderly people are a
tempting target because they've done well financially over
the past couple of decades. Between 1984 and 2001, the
median net worth of households headed by people age 65 and
older increased by 82% after adjusting for inflation,
according to the
Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics.
The elderly are tempting
targets for financial abuse.
Plus, the ranks of the
elderly are growing. The number of Americans 65 and older
will double between 2005 and 2030, accounting for 20% of
the nation's population. "You're talking about a
fast-growing population being targets," says Chayo Reyes,
a retired detective with the Los Angeles Police Department
and a member of the
National Committee for the Prevention of Elderly Abuse,
Older Americans are living
longer, too, with a current life expectancy of 77 ½ years.
Many live with chronic conditions like Alzheimer's
disease, Parkinson's disease, and strokes. That means
older people are more mentally vulnerable to being
exploited, Reyes says, due to a loss of cognitive
"These individuals are more
at risk of being financially abused," says Dr. Gerald
Jogerst, M.D., professor of family medicine at the
University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Iowa City, Iowa.
Then there's the knotty
problem of admitting that a family member is exploiting
you. According to a 2005 White House Conference on Aging
report, older people hesitate to tell about financial
exploitation by a family member because they rationalize
it's not happening, and they're ashamed to think of a
family member as a criminal. They're shocked to consider
that a close relative is taking advantage of them.
Isolation is a possible
What to watch for
According to the National
Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, a family
member taking advantage of an elderly relative may have a
substance abuse, gambling, or financial problem. Reyes
says sometimes a family member feels a sense of
entitlement, that he or she should have access to the
individual's money even though they haven't been
authorized. Individuals may have negative feelings toward
other family members and want the older person's assets
To monitor the situation
with an elderly member of your family, watch for:
A change in routine:
The more familiar you are with the daily routine, the
easier it is to spot changes. Warning signs: changes in
spending patterns, lots of unpaid bills despite available
funds, missing money or valuables, comments from the
elderly person that they're being taken advantage of, an
abrupt change in the person's will, an unexpected sale of
property, and not letting you see financial records.
frequently live in isolation from the outside world,
according to the 2005 White House Conference on Aging
report. Reyes says if it's suddenly more difficult getting
hold of Mom or Dad, that could be a significant warning
sign. "Once they answered their own phone. Now you call
and they have a phone machine," says Reyes. He's recovered
scripts the victim was directed to use if the exploiter is
out and someone calls. In extreme cases, the elderly
person is threatened. "It's all part of a plan to control
the victim," says Reyes.
The ranks of the elderly are
What should you do?
Check on them. Are
you on good terms with your elderly relative? That's more
important than whether you live close by or you're across
the country, says Jogerst. If you are on good
terms, build on the friendship. Check on them regularly
and watch for changes.
When you talk with them, pay
attention. Are they tracking well? Do they understand
what's going on? Monitor their living situation. Are they
taking care of themselves? Financial abuse often is
accompanied by other types of neglect, Jogerst says.
Consider a medical
checkup. For good measure, take them to a doctor for a
physical check. "Tests can determine how they're doing,"
says Jogerst. They can be assessed for cognitive function,
and you can ask questions, such as, "Mom seems to be
losing track of her finances. Is there a medical reason
There's the knotty problem of
admitting that a family member is exploiting you.
You'll get better insight
into the situation. "A person could be hypothyroid or have
an underlying progressive cognitive impairment like
Alzheimer's disease," says Jogerst. "The fact that they
can't remember what's happening to their finances doesn't
necessarily mean financial abuse is going on."
If you suspect a family
member is exploiting an elderly relative, Reyes advises
taking these steps:
- Write down your concerns.
- Be specific. Use
summarizing bullet points.
- Stay calm. You'll hurt
your case if you're emotional.
- Keep notes and contact
numbers. Document whom you talk to, and when. It adds
credibility, says Reyes.
- Call Adult Protective
Services (APS), local law enforcement, and the person's
financial institution as soon as possible. In many
communities, APS is listed under the Department of
Health and Human Services or Social Services. Many
states have elderly abuse hotlines, which can be found
elderabusecenter.org; click on "Help for Elders
and Families" and "State Elder Abuse Hotlines."
- If it's an emergency,
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