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 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.
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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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