Betrayal is dependent on your expectation. If you don’t have high hopes for someone, you won’t feel betrayed. If you go into business with a man named “Jimmy Con-Artist,” you might not be surprised if you get swindled. But when you actually do have expectations of or trust in someone, like a professional caregiver, if they engage in cruel and harmful betrayal like financial abuse, it cuts deep.
Most caregivers—formal or informal—who care for aging adults are strong, dedicated, loving, compassionate people. They are rocks when our lives are swirling, when we don’t know how we can help our older loved ones. These caregivers do work that makes lives better, helping older adults age in place with dignity and adventure.
But, as with anything, there are those who look to cut corners, get ahead, and take advantage of people. In the case of caregiving, when they form a bond with an older adult, it can be very easy to take advantage of that, get control of their finances, and deplete their assets. How often this happens does nothing to ease the individual sting. The loss of trust is nearly as devastating as the monetary loss.
That’s why it is incumbent upon trusted family members and other friends to be aware of signs of financial abuse in older adults by caregivers. This doesn’t have to spark paranoia nor does it mean abandoning any suspicions that you have. Good faith should be assumed. But seeing common signs of abuse is the only way to nip it in the bud, to cut short a betrayal, and to maintain financial independence.
Why Elder Financial Abuse Works
Elder financial abuse is one of the great underreported issues of our time. Even so, the statistics around the issue are overwhelming and heart breaking:
- Financial abuse costs older adults $36.5 billion every year.
- $17 billion of that comes from technically legal scams.
- One in 10 abused seniors turns to Medicaid after having their savings stolen.
- One in 10 seniors reports some form of financial abuse in the last 12 months.
- Abused seniors are three times more likely to die and four times more likely to go to a nursing home.
- Only one in 44 cases of financial abuse are reported.
The last number is very telling. Many older adults don’t want to report abuse partly because they are embarrassed. They may not realize they are being exploited or if they do, they may have already felt weak and vulnerable and the abuse heightened that. Sometimes, it is that vulnerability abusers prey on.
They build trust. They build relationships. They act as friends, and use that trust to get ahold of checkbooks, credit cards, Social Security payments, banking information, and more. They pretend to have the patient’s best interest at heart and can influence the older adult, sometimes even convincing them that the family is acting against them. And that whole time, they are slowly pulling the rug out.
So if you are a family member, what are the signs you can look for?
Signs of Financial Elder Abuse
A few years ago, we talked about what happens when a family member is engaging in financial abuse, which could be anything from guilting or bullying the older adult into “lending” them money to outright theft. But a lot of the signs are the same, and you should watch out for them. These include:
- Increased isolation: Is the caregiver dominating your loved one’s time a little more than is proportionate? Does it seem like your relative is purposefully avoiding people with whom they previously spent time? While there are always innocent (if sad) reasons why this can happen, trying to isolate the older adult may be a play of the con.
- Overdue bills: While forgetting to pay bills could be a sign of disorganization and memory loss, it could also be a sign they trusted their finances to someone who doesn’t have their best interest at heart. Maybe the money that should have paid the cable bill was pocketed by the caregiver. If you are seeing notices that your loved one has overdue or unpaid bills, it could be because someone is stealing from them or mishandling their finances (or it has already happened and they are out of money).
- Unexpected bills: Is your loved one’s credit card bill or Amazon Prime spending suddenly skyrocketing? On things they might not have bought? That’s a good sign someone else is controlling their purchasing, and buying things for themselves. Keeping an eye out for suspicious expenses can help you detect exploitation.
- They talk about investment opportunities: Sure, lots of people invest. But if they are suddenly talking about vague opportunities brought to them by a friend of their caregiver, they might be being swindled. Asking them more questions about the opportunity or offering to set up a meeting with them may be a good way to find out more information.
As you can see with all of these possible signs, it can be hard to detect financial elder abuse. The most basic problem is that all of these could have innocent explanations, or could be signs of cognitive decline and dementia. That’s why the most important thing to do is pay attention and be involved. Pay attention to what is happening with a loved one. Understand their ups and downs. Try to maintain consistent lines of communication, so you know if there is anything that seems off.
But also talk to the caregiver. Remember that most caregivers would never imagine taking advantage of those in their care. Never jump to conclusions. Maintain communication with them, so you know if what looks like theft to you is really your parent beginning to forget to pay bills or buying items impulsively. Either of those could be signs of bigger problems, and if you focus on theft, you could be ignoring something important while driving away a good and honest person.
A good relationship with a caregiver could be the most important element of an older adult’s life. Their courage and dedication allow older adults to be at home as they age, to keep up a life of discovery and adventure. That’s why it is so important to make sure the caregiver is trustworthy and that they don’t take advantage of the situation, but at the same time that you give them the trust they deserve. That means paying attention, checking in, and treating all parties with respect. That will set up expectations that can be met.
At Institute on Aging, we offer resources, programs, and services to help older adults age with dignity and comfort at home. For more information, contact us today.