Watchful loved ones, communities are key in protecting seniors from financial exploitation
FARGO – Money is missing from Grandma’s account. Signatures on checks are inconsistent. Fine jewelry and other valuables are gone. She has unexplained marks or bruises. She’s been isolated lately, not attending church or her usual coffee klatch. All are signs of possible elder abuse.
An elderly man is convinced he’s won the lottery in Canada. He just needs to wire his tax obligation in advance. Or a caller says his grandson’s in jail and needs bail money. These are common scams, often targeted at older adults.
Both result in senior citizens being taken advantage of financially.
Area efforts have focused on raising awareness about elder abuse. Sessions have trained law enforcement, victim services and financial institutions to spot it.
But how can we help protect our loved ones from financial exploitation?
The majority of advice boils down to being watchful.
While scams seeking funds or personal information to steal someone’s identity are most often initiated by strangers, elder financial abuse is perpetrated by someone trusted and often loved, such as a caregiver.
As many as 5 million older adults are victims of elder abuse each year, according to a brochure about financial exploitation at Eldercare.gov. Financial abuse is believed to cost seniors about $3 billion annually.
Abusers utilize isolation, says Shelly Carlson, Elder Abuse Project coordinator for Fargo’s Rape and Abuse Crisis Center. They may hover when people visit, or speak on the senior’s behalf.
“If you think about child abuse cases, children go to school, so people are seeing them,” Carlson says. “They tend to be in the community more versus an older person.”
A perpetrator can provide a whole list of reasons why the elder is at home, Carlson says.
“We just have to be more willing to make it our business to check on those older individuals,” she adds.
Financial exploitation tends to co-occur with neglect, physical or sexual abuse, Carlson says.
For example, a son who spends his mom’s pension on himself then can’t pay for her needs, resulting in neglect.
The typical profile of an elder abuse perpetrator is a man in his 50s who usually has some kind of chemical problem or financial problem, says Fargo police Detective Leo Rognlin. The man lives with his parents and is put in the position of caregiver.
Besides missing money or valuables, loved ones should also look out for prescription medications being stolen, for personal use or to sell.
“If you have a person that is on a particular medication and should be improving,” or their health is declining in a way that is inconsistent with the medication, it may be a sign that someone is stealing the senior’s medication, Rognlin says.
Rognlin says it’s important family or friends call adult protective services or law enforcement if they’re concerned a senior is being exploited financially.
“If you’re of sound mind, you can do with your assets as you want,” Rognlin says. “With seniors, the piece that becomes kind of hard to profile is sometimes they may have beginning stages of dementia, or advanced stages. They may not have the capacity to give them the rights to their assets.”
Carlson points out the majority of the wealth in the United States is in the hands of those who are likely to develop dementia in the next decade or two.
Older individuals are also less likely to recognize that someone is untrustworthy or to have a gut feeling of danger, according to brain research at the University of California, Los Angeles published in 2012. It suggested neurological changes make older people more susceptible to fraud and scams.
Seniors need to be reminded to never give out any personal information, such as a credit card or Social Security number or date of birth, over the phone unless the person absolutely knows to whom he or she is talking, Rognlin says.
He also suggests regularly monitoring free credit reports.
Valley Senior Services works to educate seniors about fraud and abuse, says Director Brian Arett, by distributing information from organizations like the AARP, Better Business Bureau and state attorney general’s office at senior centers or through newsletters.
“That’s a major effort, (to) help people be careful about who they trust with any financial types of information,” Arett says.
Advice for avoiding scams comes down to the old saying, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” he says.
Elder abuse is a more difficult topic, Arett says. It often involves intangible family dynamics and decades-old issues. While the abuse may be obvious to an outsider, it isn’t always apparent to the senior.
“It’s hard for mom or dad to admit there’s a problem and they need to do something to make it stop,” he said.
The National Center on Elder Abuse says advance planning tools such as advance directives, living wills and limited powers of attorney for health care and for finances can not only make a senior’s wishes known, but also prevent against financial exploitation as well as possible abuse or neglect.
“Identifying ahead of time a person you trust to manage your finances will help to limit one’s exposure to unscrupulous individuals,” the NCEA website says.
But Carlson says family members can’t just assume that the trustee or power of attorney is doing a good job.
Jean Wood, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Aging, says one suggestion she’s heard repeatedly is to have two people in a power attorney role for a check and balance.
Rules of family must change to protect elders, Wood says. Siblings may need to be more inquisitive than they usually would.
Communities and neighborhoods also must build more awareness around the issue of elder abuse.
“The greatest deterrent ultimately is that the community cares, there’s a place to report it, and there’s follow through,” Wood says.