The Emotional Impact of Financial Elder Abuse
When older persons are deceived financially by hose they trust the most, the emotional effects can be devastating. The problem of financial elder abuse costs our older population over $36 billion per year in the U.S. alone. The reasons for this rampant problem some call  “the crime of the century” are  complex. Many victims cognitively impaired in some way, and are therefore subject to the undue influence of greedy relatives, caregivers, professionals, or criminal  predators who strategically seek out  older victims. However, not all seniors who fall victim to financial abuse are affected by cognitive decline. Some competent people are seduced by unscrupulous sales pitches promising  big  rewards. Some are cheated by the Bernie Madoffs of the world and their cohorts who take advantage of  seniors  who  are  worried  about  having enough  money. These victims see the pitch or offer as a  way  to alleviate their money insecurity and they  give up  their  cash  to  those who  want  nothing more than  to take  it  and  run. Sometimes, the senior  may want to  get something  for  nothing  or  get  a  “great  deal’  with  very little  perceived risk.

Abusers are not always shady characters or unscrupulous family members. Sometimes they are legitimate organizations that simply find an opportunity to take advantage of someone with whom they already have a relationship. Using a relationship of trust to manipulate an older adult is called undue influence. The laws protecting them from being victimized by undue  influence  vary  considerably  from state to  state,  with  some defining it  so  vaguely  that enforcement  is  difficult. However, whether the law is used to convict  abusers  of this crime or not, the effect on an aging  person is  devastating.  It is hard enough to realize that one has been duped by a stranger.  When one understands that the manipulator is a trusted relative, friend, an organization in which  a  person  truly  believes  or  contributes to,  the  pain  is  even  worse.

Wanda’s  Case

Wanda was eighty-nine years old at the time her daughter, Janis, contacted an attorney. Janis reported that Wanda had been a member of her large church all her life and had been an active participant in the congregation. She had always made modest contributions to the church and trusted all of the other members. But over time, Wanda’s memory began to decline and she got confused easily.The church began a fundraising campaign for new construction. Wanda was asked for a donation, which she gave. Then another request came and Wanda once again complied. Wanda gave larger and larger donations to the church over the next year, with the checks totaling over $100, 000.  Janis grew increasingly alarmed, because her mother clearly  was  in  need  of  help.  Wanda was found lost and wandering near the church after one day. The church itself had recorded the incident and a church worker had taken  Wanda  home. Janis was concerned that Wanda would run out of
money. She was physically ok, but her mental condition was becoming  a  serious enough  problem  that Janis believed  she  should no longer  live  alone.  And Wanda trusted the church, to the point that she did not believe that anyone  there  would  do  anything  wrong. This was a case of the church using its position of influence over an  impaired  member  to  elicit  larger  and  larger  financial  contributions  from  her. They took advantage of an older adult who had become lost and confused after church, and they knew it. Wanda could not perceive that she needed care, which was going to be expensive, and that she could all  her  reserves  by  these overly  generous  donations.  She was not able to act in her own best interests.  She 
believed  that  she  could  not  possibly  run out  of money. When her daughter, Janis, tried to explain that she had to stop giving to the building fund,  Wanda  was incredulous. She simply could not process the reality that she was going to lose all her savings if she kept up the contributions.
 She became angry with her daughter for even suggesting that her actions were not  right and that  the  church was  out  of line  doing  what  it  did.

Wanda’s emotional response to the abuse was to be in denial about it. She likely not able to fully process what had happened and felt that Janis was  being disloyal  to  the  church. The matter did get resolved. When the church was contacted  to  meet  and  discuss  the  pattern  of  solicitations they  had  sent  to  Wanda  and  their  record  of  her being  lost  after church  services,  they  immediately contacted  an  attorney  who put  a  stop  to  their  actions. Janis was able to watch over Wanda  after  that  and  she  did obtain  help  for  her. Wanda’s anger at Janis was an unfortunate effect of stopping the abuse. Wanda would likely have been angry at the church had she been able to perceive that she was being manipulated.  However, she was cognitively impaired and did not see
the full  picture.

The Emotional Impact of Abuse

Undue influence is not the only means of taking advantage of seniors. Any kind of elder abuse can be devastating. Denial is common after older victims discover financial abuse. When a scam is underway, they tend to keep  up  hope  and  continue engaging  with  the  scammer. Despite warnings from family, friends, and advice from knowledgeable  others,  they  continue to  believe that  the  big  payoff  is  coming. Or they are unable to embrace that  they  have  made  a mistake  and  trusted an  untrustworthy  person. Sometimes, even after the evidence of fraud mounts, the  victim  continues  to  give money  to  the  predator. They have put their trust in someone whom they very much want to believe  was trustworthy. When the payoff does not come, or nothing that  was  promised  materializes,  they  eventually  realize they  were duped. The effect is sometimes intense shame and embarrassment.  Living with this shame often leads to depression.

Suicides resulting from financial abuse have been reported.  Some never recover emotionally  from  the feeling  of  horror  that  they  were  “so  dumb”  as  to  fall for  a  scam  that  in  retrospect  looks a  lot  more  obvious.  It damages a person’s sense of self, and sense of being able to  trust  one’s  own  judgment.  It can go to the core of a  person’s  self-esteem,  leaving  the  victim with  a  belief  that  he  can  no longer  trust  himself with anything  financial. When a senior loses most or all of her assets and is left impoverished, it becomes a constant reminder of the  shame  of being  duped  by  someone  else. Losing a home can force the person to live somewhere he does not choose to be. That can be with relatives if available,  but  it  can  also  land  him in  a  Medicaid  bed  in a nursing  home  where  few  would  ever  want  to live  out their  last  years.

Prevention Strategies

No one is totally immune from fraud and financial abuse.  Anyone can be victimized. Many a sad tale is told by an adult child of a victimized aging parent that  “I trusted my father and didn’t want to question him.”  Or,  “I thought since my mom was a CPA, she would never fall for  that.”  Part of the problem is the perception adult children and even some professionals have that certain  folks  are  never going to  be  abused  financially  because  they  are  smart,  or experienced with money  matters. It is simply not true that education or experience protects everyone.  Working with older adults puts professionals in a position to  be  vigilant,  to  educate  about  the  risks of  abuse  out there,  and  mainly  to  pay  attention.

Using Resources to Help Victimized Clients

While the criminal justice system prosecutes the relatively small number of abusers who are reported to authorities, it does not  do  much  to  help the victims of abuse. Money stolen from older people is often long gone by the  time a predator is brought to justice. When a criminal is prosecuted successfully, the  court will  order  that  he  make  restitution  of stolen  monies  to the  victim,  but  enforcement of  restitution  orders  can be  problematic.

What is almost entirely lacking is any resource to help a victim of financial abuse manage the emotional effects of the crime.  We simply do not fund this in our justice system.  If victimized seniors wish to get emotional support or mental health help to recover from the impact  of  financial  abuse,  they  would  have to  do  so  on  their  own. The cost is clearly a barrier, though Medicare does provide for  psychological  services.  However, the benefit has limitations. A diagnosis is required for  the  provider  to  get  payment.  And many people attach a stigma to getting mental health help, which is an unfortunate perception that stops some from obtaining the needed  psychological  support  for  recovering. If there is a civil case of elder abuse with a successful outcome, and financial damages are actually awarded to the victim as a result, the award may include expenses for psychological treatment for the victim. Therapy is one means a victimized person  can learn  to  cope with  the  emotional distress, shame, and
 humiliation of being taken advantage  of by any financial abuser. There is little doubt that those who receive supportive services after victimization  cope  better  and have  a  better  chance  of healing from  the  trauma.

Professionals’ Roles with Abuse Victims

Professionals who work with aging adults in any capacity will likely encounter someone who has been victimized or is in the process of  being taken  advantage of by  another.  It is important to know their own community resources to provide information to anyone who may need help. Understand how difficult it must be for the person who has been victimized, and offer a respectful referral  to  a  local  resource. Local mental health providers can be found through the American Psychological Association, Psychologist Locator, community service agencies such as Jewish Family  Service Agency  (serving people of all faiths), the  Alzheimer’s Association, or senior centers throughout the U.S. Most offer information and referral to local providers in the  senior’s  county.

Warning  Signs

When suspecting financial elder abuse, those working with them  should be  aware  of these warning  signs:

1.  The presence of a new “friend” in a client’s life who has an inordinate interest in the older person’s accounts  or  assets,  and who  gains access  to any  of them.
2.  Sudden change in a Durable Power of Attorney document.
3.  Isolation of the older adult from friends, family, and others close to them.
4.  Large gifts to strangers or people they don’t know well.
5.  Complaints about having reached maximums on credit cards when this has never happened  before.
6.  Frequent email or telephone contact with any stranger who establishes a relationship  with  the senior  that  seems  addictive.

With the effort of those in the community surrounding older adults, we can all  take  steps  to  intervene  and  prevent  or  stop  abuse. If something seems odd to you, speak up, ask questions, step  in  where  you can. You just might be the key to keeping a senior financially safe.  And if you learn of abuse in the  course of  doing  business  with  a  senior  client,  a  kindly  approach  in  offering emotional  health  resources  lifts both  you and  the  victim.

BY CAROLYN ROSENBLATT, RN, ELDER LAW ATTORNEY
Carolyn Rosenblatt has over forty-five  years of  experience in  her combined professions  of nursing  and  legal  practice. She is co-founder of AgingParents.com, a resource  for families, and Aginglnvestor.com, offering educational training and products. She can be contacted at  (415)  459-0413,  carolyn@aginginvestor.com.

REFERENCES
Journal of Accountancy.  2015.  “Emotional harm of elder financial abuse outweighs  its financial  damage.”  www.journalofaccountancy.com/news/2015/jun/elderfinancial-abuse-201512535.html.  Accessed January 2016.
MetLife Study on Elder Abuse, www.metlife.com/assets/cao/mmi/publications/studies/2011/mmi-elder-financial-abuse.pdf.  Accessed January 2016.
Rosenblatt, Carolyn. 2015. “Protecting Our Aging Parents from Abuse.”  In The Family Guide  to  Aging  Parents:  Answers  to Your  Legal,  Financial  and  Healthcare  Questions.  Sanger, CA:  Familius, 284-296.,  2015.
“Common Elder Specific Issues.” In Working With Aging Clients: A Guide for Legal, Business and Financial Professionals.  Chicago:  American Bar Association,  71-76.

This article was originally published in the CSA JOURNAL 66  / VOL.  2, 2016  / SOCIETY OF CERTIFIED  SENIOR  ADVISORS  /  WWW.CSA.US

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