The bar I used to take my father to was exceedingly Irish and unblinkingly multi-generational. There was no “young person” corner or anything like that—everyone mixed up, and 20-somethings listened to the stories of men 60 years their elder, swapped the same jokes, and told the same tall tales. That’s why no one questioned why Patsy, a Kerry man in his 80s, was always hanging out with two younger guys. They had done some work at his house, and he befriended them, and now they were nearly inseparable.They seemed like they were taking good care of him, helping him around, allowing him to come to the pub to hang out with his friends.
It wasn’t until later that we heard the stories. These guys had gotten control of Patsy’s checkbook, offering to do his shopping and other innocuous things. They showed him how to order things online, getting ahold of a lot of his personal information. In his 80s, he was increasingly confused, and his loneliness after his wife died had been growing like a creeping summer shadow. He was a ripe target for false friends, and these two were trying to bleed him dry. It was only when one of his daughters confessed her fears to some of the pub’s regulars that we realized what was happening, and put a stop to it, barely saving his final years from being broke and embittered. We got lucky—many victims of elder financial abuse are not so fortunate. Understanding the signs and taking preventative action can help keep your aging loved one from suffering the same heartbreaking loss.
The Roots Of Financial Elder Abuse
When we think of scams that target an aging population, we think of slick-sounding email scams, infomercials, bunkum investment artists, or any other host of professional predators. The truth is, though, that smaller and more personal crimes constitute much of financial elder abuse. It can come from a stranger or a loved one, preying on the need for companionship and a lack of understanding regarding personal finances. Both of these tend to increase as someone gets older.
People over 50 control up to 70% of the nation’s disposable income, and this sort of disproportionate wealth makes them fairly big targets. Tragically, they can often be targeted by loved ones, who have the most immediate access to aging family members. Younger generations were hit hard by the economic turmoil of the last decade, and might be resentful. If they are in debt, falling behind on bills, or having problems with substance abuse or gambling, the feeling that the money is rightfully theirs can be a powerful one. This doesn’t even have to start maliciously: after all, it’s basically their inheritance, right? One check won’t hurt, and I see mom nearly every day, at least every week, so I’ve earned it. That can be the first tumble down a slippery slope that leads to abuse.
Obviously, as Patsy’s story showed, it isn’t always family members. The isolation that can come naturally with aging leaves people vulnerable to new “friends,” which can be neighbors, people who have done some work for them, someone at the store. It can even be a paid caregiver. They build confidence, ingratiate themselves, and slowly take over under the guise of helping. Some of the more tragic stories involve separating their mark from their families, turning them against their children, and even convincing them to rewrite their wills. This hurts everyone, and can poison memories.
You should always be on the lookout for signs of elder financial abuse towards your aging loved ones. Some of the signs include new friends, which of course aren’t always or even usually suspicious, but can be. If the care they receive isn’t commensurate with what is being paid, that could be a sign. A sudden influx of unpaid bills, overdue notices, or anything else out of the ordinary is a sign that the person who is supposed to be helping is, in fact, helping themselves. Strange signatures on checks, odd withdrawals, or your loved one not being able to explain what exactly is happening to their money are all giant red flags.
Preventing Elder Financial Abuse
There are those giant red flags, along with ones like the sudden imposition of a new financial advisor, but you’ll see that most of what you need to watch out for requires paying close attention to what is going on with a loved one’s finances. That’s the heart of preventing financial abuse: care.
Our aging relatives and friends are easier marks for this kind of abuse because they can be more susceptible to false friendships and generally need more assistance. Someone friendly offering to help can be very seductive, which is why elder abuse prevention needs to start before this. Here are a few ways to make sure that your aging loved one isn’t a target.
- Require background checks on any caregiver (we know this is easier said than done).
- Understand what kind of care is commensurate with what is being paid, so you can deduce if some of the money is being pocketed.
- Oversee solid financial planning, including having an understanding of their income and expected expenses, so anything that doesn’t fit throws up a caution sign.
- Check in regularly on their finances to see if there are any hugely unexpected bills, if their checks have odd signatures, or if their statements no longer go to the same address.
- Stay in contact and on good terms with attorneys and legal executors, so that if there is movement toward change, you will know about it.
- Above all, spend time with them, so that they don’t need a facade of friendship from another to fill a hole.
It’s odd, in a way: your behavior to prevent elder financial abuse is essentially the same behavior as someone perpetrating it: spending time and monitoring their finances. Recognizing this is key to understanding why this kind of abuse is so prevalent. The con artist is mimicking the behavior of loved ones and of talented, professional caregivers. They are filling a void with something even darker, but the void doesn’t have to be there in the first place. Concern, love, and attention are the best preventions.
Helping an aging loved one takes more than compassion—it takes the ability to protect them from scams and help keep their finances in order. At the Institute on Aging, we help people who are helping aging loved ones maintain independence and dignity. Contact us today to learn more about our programs.