by Lindsay Felsing, Director of Economic Security
Why are older adults the targets of financial exploitation? Reflections on differences between generations and cultural attitudes toward aging
The world we live in today is very different than the world in which our elders grew up. Technology advances practically daily. In the age of Facebook, we often replace in-person interaction with the ‘Like’ of a friend’s photo or a comment on their page. We might even feel connected to someone we rarely talk to just because we see details of their life displayed on Facebook. Admittedly, I occasionally dread when I hear my phone ringing. Sometimes, I won’t answer, and I’ll respond with a text message – opting for a quick means to an end versus meaningful interaction. I know that I’m not the only person of my generation who prefers texts to real phone conversations, and it’s not necessarily indicative of my lack of caring for whoever is calling me, but rather a symptom of growing up in a fast-paced, digital age that has changed the way we interact and communicate with one another.
We prefer quick communication because we’re all used to constant stimulation through our cell phones, tablets, and various other electronic gizmos. We’re typically not focusing solely on whoever or whatever is in front of us, but we’re multi-tasking constantly, focusing on many things at once. Nowadays, we may need self-help and guided meditation just to sit quietly with ourselves for more than five minutes. This, simply put, is not the way older generations communicate or relate to the world. These differences can lead to a disconnect between generations in how we understand each other or interpret interactions we have with each other. These differences can have real-life consequences in how we view older adults and aging and present a barrier to identifying issues affecting them – including various forms of elder abuse.
Not only do we live in a country that values the quick-moving, but we live in a country that values and idealizes youth and beauty. At one time, Americans associated ‘elders’ with wisdom, knowledge, and the highest of esteem. Today, those positive associations are sometimes replaced with more negative euphemisms like slow, computer-illiterate, horrible driver, stuck in the dark ages, grumpy, etc. Again, how a culture views aging could certainly have implications for how they are treated by family members and society at large. This disconnect can help conceptualize why elder abuse has become so rampant by younger family members who feel entitled to their money or scammers who use technology to take money. Perhaps, the digital divide has a tangible and profoundly negative influence on the treatment of older adults by some individuals. Perhaps, something about the way we view elders in our culture is giving certain misguided individuals the horribly wrong idea about how to treat older adults.
Attitudes towards older adults have been studied specifically among health care professionals. For example, a study compiled by the Administration on Aging (2012) demonstrated that there is some evidence to suggest that health care professionals are more condescending and have less patience when interacting with older adults and, consequently, they “spend less time with older patients, take a more authoritarian role, provide less information, and often fail to address important psychosocial and preventive factors.” This less than ideal manner of communication often results in older adults failing to share pertinent information about their health which could affect diagnostic decisions. The same study found that “unclear communication can cause an entire health care encounter to fall apart.” While this study pertains to attitudes and communication styles among a specific group, the findings can certainly shed light on attitudes on a larger scale as well as some older adults’ reluctance to report elder abuse.
America’s older population is projected to increase rapidly over the next 15 years, and by 2030 nearly one out of every five Americans will be 65 years of age and older (Administration on Aging, 2012). It is important as individuals and collectively as a society to examine our views of aging and how we relate to people older than ourselves. We will, after all, all age. Our attitudes toward aging inherently affect our health and quality of life as we age ourselves. By 2050, there will be more adults over the age of 65 than children (American Society on Aging, 2014). We better get our act together.
The American Society on Aging (2014) recently presented drawings by 4th grade students before and after completing Bridges: Growing Older, Growing Together, an intergenerational program that allows older adults to share their experiences with children. The drawings prior to the program often depicted an older person that is frail, slow, and were riddled with negative stereotypes of aging. One student’s picture described an older adult as “elderly, wrinkly, old, have poor eyesight, wears ugly clothes, is in a wheelchair, and has a big, lumpy nose.” After experiencing intergenerational programming, the same 4th grade student described seniors as “funny, kind, entertaining, caring, sometimes active, can have any color hair, interested in many things, and fun.” This change in attitudes describes a powerful shift in the way that child viewed aging. If only we could replicate that shift on a larger scale – what doors could we open? How might our relationships with older adults improve? How would our experience with aging improve?
If stereotypes regarding age affect how some of our most trusted members of society (family, caregivers, and healthcare professionals) treat older adults, what does that say for us? The message is not to point fingers, but rather to examine our own ideas so that we can open doors between ourselves and older adults and other groups rather than close them because our communication style is riddled with latent stereotypes and ageism that prevents meaningful connection, interaction, or service delivery.
Beyond culture, there are other reasons why older adults fall victim to financial fraud and exploitation (list adapted from The National Research Council’s publication, Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in an Aging America):
- According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, 70% of all funds deposited in financial institutions are controlled by people age 65 and older. Some have accumulated wealth, and this makes them the target of people who want to acquire that wealth for themselves.
- Older people may be more trusting or relatively unsophisticated about financial matters, particularly when they are unfamiliar with advances in technology that have made managing finances more complicated.
- They may not realize the value of their assets – particularly homes that have appreciated greatly in value.
- Those on a fixed income of social security may be more willing to try a “get-rich-quick” scheme.
- Elders can be easily identified and are presumed vulnerable.
- Older adults may be more likely to have conditions or disabilities that make them easy targets for financial abuse, including forgetfulness or other cognitive impairments brought on by aging like dementia.
- Older adults who are socially isolated due to their lack of mobility or because they live alone may shield perpetrators from scrutiny or prevent a victim from asking for help. The socially isolated older adult may also be lonely and desire companionship and thus be susceptible to persons seeking to take advantage of them.
- Perpetrators may believe that older adults may be afraid to ask for help or be less likely to take action against those perpetrators, particularly if they are a friend or family member.
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.