The financial exploitation of seniors is one of the most heartbreaking and under reported problems facing our country. Mental images evoke ruthless predators playing on the weaknesses of frail elderly people who are languishing alone in their homes. There are reports of telemarketers and “friendly visitors” who exploit lonely seniors and trick them into investing their money in scams. While this indeed does happen, the most insidious cases of abuse are much more personal. Many times the predator is not a heartless stranger, but a trusted family member; often the spouse, children or the grandchildren of the victim.
Take the case of Mrs. Monroe (not her real name), a widowed 86-year-old woman living alone in her home. During Hurricane Sandy, she allowed her granddaughter to move into a room in her house after her basement apartment was flooded. Now the girl refuses to leave. She is pocketing her grandmother’s monthly Social Security check and is helping herself to extra cash by using Mrs. Monroe’s ATM card.
Another example is the case of Mr. Rodriguez, (not his real name) who lives in his Staten Island home. Mr. Rodriquez has crippling arthritis and needs an aide to look after him. His three children take all the income from his property holdings and cash them for their own purpose. What complicates the problem even more is the fact that one of his exploiters is an employee of the New York police department, so even when he filed a complaint, the case was overlooked.
The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA) describes financial abuse of the elderly as a broad spectrum of activities which includes the forging of an older person’s signature, using the older person’s property or possessions without his permission, or fraudulently offering to care for the person in exchange for money or property.
Types of exploitations can vary including emotional and physical. The abuser may cash the senior’s monthly social security check, confiscate valuable jewelry or other possession. Sometimes the victim is physically threatened, abused or has food withheld until she agrees to submit.
Who are these predators? The typical portrait is a dependent child who has financial problems of his own, such as a drug abuse, gambling debts, or no other means of support. Many times the child harbors a sense of entitlement to the money. He feels he has more right to the money or believes his needs have greater priority. This situation has increased as the economy has weakened. In some cases a child may move back home due to job lost or a home that is repossessed. Then she preys on her parent and become abusive.
A New York State study on elder abuse sponsored by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services released a report in 2011 on elder abuse in the state. The report revealed that approximately 3.24 people per thousand (among the 60+ population) have suffered some form of abuse. Of those victims the most common type of maltreatment is financial. The study also discloses that this number is underestimated and is probably much larger.
The reasons for underreporting of financial abuse are numerous. Some examples include fear of family retaliation, desertion or threats of nursing home placement. An older person who has difficulty with mobility can be held “prisoner” in her own home, feeling she has no choice but to tolerate the situation. Frequently, a decline in cognition or dementia gives the abuser “free reign” over finances because the victim doesn’t even know what’s happening. Many seniors are emotionally conflicted and are reluctant to report their children or grandchildren.
Financial abuse does not necessarily happen only among the poor or middle class. The case of the philanthropist Brook Astor illustrated that this type of victimization can happen even at the highest level of society. In 2009, her son was convicted of stealing her millions and refusing to give her proper medical attention.
As this problem is becomes more visible, professionals are looking for ways to combat it. One step was the formation of the New York City Elder Abuse Center (NYCEAC) in 2009. NYCEAC’s programs are geared towards helping other professionals and agencies in New York City to collaborate and develop strategies to counter the problem.
NYCEAC’s Brooklyn Multidisciplinary Team (Brooklyn MDT) is one such program. The team consists of representatives from the Kings County DA’s Office, Adult Protective Services, Weill Cornell Medical College physicians, and other social services agencies. They collaborate to come up with suggestions and strategies on how agencies can address particular cases. The team meets three Wednesdays a month in downtown Brooklyn to discuss specific cases.
In October 2012, The New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) announced it has received a three-year, $1 million Elder Abuse Prevention Interventions Grant from the U.S. Administration for Community Living (ACL) to initiate and test a new program specifically geared to combat financial exploitation and elder abuse in New York. One pilot program will be based in Manhattan and should be open for operation later this year. The program will include a forensic accountant to investigate and intervene in cases of financial exploitation of older adults living in Manhattan.
Most of us envision our “golden years” after retirement to be full of relaxation and carefree enjoyment of life. Unfortunately, a little over 3% of New York’s elderly are living a life far from what they had imagined. If you know of, or suspect that a senior is being abused or financially exploited, please contact any of these agencies.