Counselor's Corner: More elders being targeted for financial abuse

A wheelchair-bound woman suffers in silence at the hands of an abusive caregiver. A lone widower falls victim to a predatory lending scam and loses his home. An ailing mother lies helpless in her bedroom while her son spends her life savings.As many as one in seven senior citizens nationwide falls victim to some type of elder abuse-usually at the hands of a family member. The abuse can be financial, physical or psychological, and the consequences can be deadly. Statistics suggest that abused and exploited seniors die sooner than other seniors their age. But in spite of such devastating consequences, most elder abuse goes unreported. Furthermore, the injuries suffered by an older person from physical abuse or neglect are tragic, but there's a much less sensational and publicized form of elder abuse - financial abuse - that can be equally devastating. When a relative or "friend" exploits an older person and manages to drain away savings and assets that have taken years to accumulate, from that point on, the elder's lifestyle is severely diminished. Despite its devastating impact, financial abuse seems to be the least understood of all forms of elder abuse. My office has in recent months been litigating cases in this area and I have reviewed law books and have found that most books spend little or no time on financial abuse. In addition, most protective service agencies, which are charged with investigating financial abuse cases, do not adequately train their caseworkers to handle the problem. Usually, adult protective services (APS) caseworkers either are trained as social workers or come from other public service agencies that emphasize the care giving or social services aspect of elder care. While this kind of background equips APS workers to deal with abuse or neglect cases, it does not provide them with expertise in investigating financial cases involving the transfer of monies and properties from incapacitated or vulnerable adults. Finally, there is an overall reluctance to report financial exploitation. Elderly victims may fail to report either because of their own incapacity or because of the stigma they feel would be attached to their being identified as a victim. An older person may also be reluctant to inform on a relative or caregiver who is exploiting them because of emotional or psychological attachment to the person. Professional service providers, such as bank personnel, attorneys and health care workers often fail to report such cases either because they don't know which agency to call or because they adhere to a policy of strict confidentiality with respect to their client's affairs. So how can one spot financial abuse and help report the abuser? While the definition of financial exploitation varies among the states, the one most commonly cited is the neglect, exploitation or "painful or harmful" mistreatment of anyone who is 65 or older (or any disabled dependent adult aged 18 to 64). It can involve physical violence, psychological abuse, isolation, abandonment, abduction, false imprisonment or a caregiver's neglect. It could also involve the unlawful taking of an elder's money or property. Although each case presents its own particular facts, exploitation tends to fall into predictable patterns. The common denominator is the existence of a relative, friend, or caregiver in whom the elder has placed confidence or trust. The delegation of financial authority to the exploiter may be done openly or come about more subtly. The exploitation scenarios typically are: * An elder who is physically dependent on a caregiver who isolates him or her from social and family contacts. Because of the isolation and physical dependence on the caregiver, the elder loses his or her free will and becomes powerless to say no. As long as this relationship continues in isolation, the victim (who otherwise may appear rational and lucid) may even ratify the exploitative transaction after it has occurred. * An elder whose mental health is slipping. These cases involve elders who once may have been perfectly capable of handling their own financial affairs, but dementia or other ailments cause them to lose interest and ability in such matters. These elderly people typically turn to the exploiter, who again is someone they trust, to handle their financial affairs. Often the delegation of responsibility is not overt, but is simply assumed by the exploiter, with little or no understanding by the elder of what is occurring. * The bereaved widow. These cases typically involve persons who have had long marriages and whose spouses conducted the financial business of the family. The spouse dies, leaving the survivor to cope with the emotional devastation of being left alone, compounded with the anxiety and confusion of having to deal with financial matters in which he or she has little experience. For such people, dealing with banks, creditors, and professionals is a nightmare that only serves to remind them of how much they miss their spouses. The entrance of the exploiter is a welcome relief that opens the door to the blissful state of allowing someone else to handle the money. Once the exploiter obtains access to the senior's financial assets, the actual methods of exploitation are likewise predictable. One of the most commonly used means of transferring property is the general, durable power of attorney. This instrument, which is typically quite useful in dealing with an incapacitated elderly person's affairs, is a powerful tool in the hands of an unscrupulous person. Such an instrument allows the appointed attorney-in-fact full legal authority to transfer an elder's property - including houses, stocks, bonds and bank accounts. If you suspect someone is being abused, call Adult Protective Services (APS). Check your county phone listings for a local APS office or, for a referral, you can call 1-800-510-2020. If the abuse is occurring in a licensed long-term care facility, such as a nursing home, call the local long-term care ombudsman. (To locate an ombudsman, call 1-800-231-4024.) Your report will be confidential, and you can remain anonymous. To report elder abuse of any kind, you can simply call the California Attorney General's Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Reporting Hotline at 1-888-436-3600. For further information and guidance, request a free publication entitled "A Citizen's Guide to Preventing & Reporting Elder Abuse" by writing to: Crime and Violence Prevention Center, 1300 I Street, Suite 1150, Sacramento, CA 95814. Requests can also be made via fax at 916-327-2384. The guide, produced by the California Attorney General's Office, is also available at (click on Publications and Elder Abuse).

********** Published: May 21, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 5