According to the U.S. Census Bureau[i], in 2010 there were 5,276,231 more people in the U.S. over the age of 64 than there had been in 2000. The Baby Boomers are aging. The Silver Tsunami is real, and it is incumbent upon us to take care of, and protect, our elders. Despite this charge, financial exploitation of the elderly is the fastest-growing form of elder abuse in this country. A study done by MetLife Mature Market Institute in 2009 estimated that the annual financial loss by victims of elder financial abuse was at least $2.6 billion.[ii] Yet, because only one in every 44 cases of financial exploitation of the elderly is ever reported, current annual losses could actually be closer to $1 trillion.
Mental and/or physical decline due to the aging process often causes dependence on others for care or companionship. This dependence creates a ripe opportunity for a family member or trusted friend to financially exploit a vulnerable adult by isolating them from others, limiting their access to information, betraying their confidence, and/or leveraging their fears. Financial exploitation can occur when an elderly adult is mentally capable or when he or she is cognitively compromised. It can occur with the elder’s awareness or without their knowledge. If an elder is aware of the abuse, he or she may nonetheless be unable or unwilling to implicate a friend or family member as the perpetrator. The strength of silent fears of being abandoned, growing old alone or unloved, or being placed into a nursing home should not be underestimated.
Due to its very private and secretive nature, financial abuse of the elderly is often difficult to recognize or admit. There may be little evidence – other than second-hand reports or a gut feeling – to support a concern. It might be difficult to accurately interpret a relationship that has components of excessive control and submissiveness. An older adult might deny that any financial abuse has occurred, even when there is some credible evidence to the contrary. As mentioned above, the older person who denies a problem may well be acting out of fear and intimidation. Unlike physical abuse, where the tell-tale signs can be observed by physical exam, the presence of financial exploitation can be much more difficult to detect.
If possible, an older person who is a suspected victim of financial abuse or exploitation should be personally examined by a gerontologist, neurologist, or other medical professional trained in geriatric neuropsychological evaluation and elder abuse issues. A professional assessment of the elder’s vulnerabilities and their specific relationship with the suspected perpetrator may be crucial in identifying the need for protective strategies, civil action and/or criminal prosecution.
To learn more about Financial Exploitation within Family Systems, click here.
[i]The Older Population: 2010 Census Briefs (2010). Retrieved September 10, 2014, from http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-09.pdf
[ii] MetLife Mature Market Institute, Broken Trust: Elders, Family and Finances – a Study on Elder Financial Abase Prevention (March 2009). Retrived September 10, 2014, from https://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/mmi/publications/studies/mmi-study-broken-trust-elders-family-finances.pdf
Renée Ezer is a Boulder attorney who has worked with vulnerable adults and their families for over 25 years to protect the elderly from financial exploitation and abuse.