Blog Series: The Financial Exploitation of our Elders, Culture, and Ageism, Part One

by Lindsay Felsing, Director of Economic Security

Each year hundreds of thousands of older adults face abuse, neglect, and exploitation. People who are older, experiencing health problems, and vulnerable tend to be most at risk of elder abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse uses six major categories to describe types of elder abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, neglect, abandonment, and financial abuse or exploitation. Today, elder abuse is recognized as a widespread and pervasive problem in the United States.

Last month, we celebrated Financial Literacy month. Now, it’s Older Americans Month. In the spirit of being “financially literate” and celebrating older Americans, it is important to understand this issue and its implications on a broader scale, how to identify it, and how to prevent it whenever possible.

Financial Elder Abuse: Domestic

From the 80s to the 90s, there was a 150% increase in reports of domestic elder abuse.  According to the Administration on Aging, financial exploitation is the number one form of elder abuse after neglect and emotional abuse, although one could argue that financial exploitation is intrinsically tied to emotional abuse.

The problem with identifying domestic financial exploitation of an elder is that this abuse is perpetrated by a family member, caregiver, or trusted friend. In fact, according to the National Council on Aging, 90% of all reported elder abuse is committed by someone they know and most often by a family member.

The National Research Council’s publication, Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in an Aging America, includes a comprehensive list of what domestic financial abuse looks like:

  •       Taking, misusing, or using without knowledge or permission money or property
  •       Forging or forcing an elder person’s signature
  •       Abusing joint signature authority on a bank account
  •       Misusing ATMs or credit cards
  •       Cashing an elder person’s check without permission or authorization
  •       Misappropriating funds from a pension
  •       Getting an elder person to sign a deed, will, contract, or power of attorney through deception, coercion, or undue influence
  •       Providing true but misleading information that influences the elder person’s use or assignment of assets
  •       Persuading an impaired elder person to change a will or insurance policy to alter who benefits from the will or policy
  •       Using a power of attorney, including a durable power of attorney, for purposes beyond those for which it was originally executed
  •       Improperly using the authority provided by a conservatorship, trust, etc.
  •       Negligently mishandling assets, including misuse by a fiduciary or caregiver
  •       Promising long-term or lifelong care in exchange for money or property and not following through on the promise
  •       Overcharging for or not delivering caregiving services

Some of these scenarios can deplete an elder’s resources. Many older adults do not want to take action against family members or caregivers who they suspect may be taking advantage of them financially, and they certainly do not want to believe that someone they know would do such a thing. Domestic financial exploitation often results, therefore, not only in financial consequences and losses, but significant psychological consequences as well.

Financial Elder Abuse: Scams

Many older adults are also victims of financial scams. Very recently, I was at a post office in Lansing on my lunch break from work. As the postman was preparing my package to be mailed, he noticed my nametag, which clearly stated that I work for Elder Law of Michigan, and he told me he wished I would have been there earlier. An older woman had come to the post office frantically attempting to mail a check to an unknown man in another country who claimed to have her granddaughter held hostage. This man said the granddaughter would be returned to the United States safely once she sent him a significant sum of money.

I knew from my work at Elder Law of Michigan that the scenario the postman described to me is commonly known as ‘the Grandparent Scam.’ I left my information in hopes that she might return and call Elder Law of Michigan before sending the money. The perpetrators of this crime, however, typically put the victim in such a state of desperation that reason and logic are left behind before the unlikelihood of such a scenario enters his/her mind.

Scams aren’t always easy to recognize at first. The National Council on Aging recently published a piece on the Top 10 Scams Targeting Seniors, including the Grandparent Scam I described earlier, and what to look for.

Read the second post in this series here. 

Lindsay Felsing is the Director of Economic Security at Elder Law of Michigan. She joined Elder Law in 2011 as the Regional Project Manager for MiCAFE, was promoted to Assistant Director in 2012, and then assumed the position of Director in 2013. Through her work at Elder Law, Lindsay has managed over 100 community partners and 200 volunteers across the state of Michigan – including recruitment, training, and education related to the State of Michigan Food Assistance Program.


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