Identifying and repairing financial abuse of seniors at the end of life

No one wants to see their elderly parents physically or financially abused, but elder abuse is a significant problem. One in nine seniors reported being abused, neglected, or exploited in the past 12 months: the rate of financial abuse is extremely high, with one in 20 seniors reporting some form of perceived financial abuse in the recent past. Elder abuse is vastly underreported: only one in 44 cases of financial abuse is reported.

With so much unreported financial abuse among seniors, how can you know if your loved one is being abused but hasn't told you?

Close friends and family members of an elder share the same desire to protect the elder from harm. Protecting and preventing elder financial abuse begins with an understanding of the elder's vulnerability to harm from the undue influence of others. An older adult's vulnerability is not solely due to their disability. Elders may be vulnerable because of illness, disability, injury, age, education, mental illness, emotional distress, isolation, addiction, or substance abuse. Elders are usually abused by those who have some apparent authority. These may include family members, trustees, guardians, friends, neighbors or service providers. Signs of abuse may be evident in credit card statements, bank statements, unpaid bills, frequent bank trips, ATM cash withdrawals and service scams. While seniors value their privacy, some degree of transparency with their loved ones is helpful and sometimes necessary to prevent abuse. This transparency should include sharing, if possible, with more than one family member or with a trusted one. A family member who only handles an elder's financial affairs without some transparency can create a situation ripe for abuse. Other signs of abuse include an elder's embarrassment and non-communication with family members. An abuser often threatens an elder with the need for secrecy. This is often coupled with a stern warning that if information is disclosed, the elder will lose his or her home, freedom or the person on whom he or she has become totally dependent.

If you suspect a family member is an abuser, what is the proper way to handle the situation?

While there is no perfect way to deal with suspected abuse by a particular family member, there are a number of inquiries that can be made. Start with the elder. What does the elder say about what is going on? There will often be statements like "my son has all my money" or "my daughter made me sign a bunch of papers and I don't know what they mean." This is often an area of great frustration because there is usually no formal finding of incompetence by the elder and the elder is presumed to have capacity without such a finding. The presumption of capacity limits in some respects the right of others to challenge the wrongdoing of others against the elder. A capable elder is presumed to be able to make his or her own financial decisions. Agencies such as Adult Protective Services may be called upon to conduct their own abuse investigations. Such investigations may be cursory in nature with a short phone call or visit with the senior. Many cases of elder financial abuse include a long history of APS calls with little or no intervention. Interested family members facing the abuse should meet separately with the elder and the abuser. Because the elder has often become dependent on the abuser, successful intervention can be very difficult. Some success may occur if the elder revokes a current power of attorney granted to the perpetrator and grants a new durable power of attorney over the elder's affairs to a responsible family member. (A durable power of attorney is one that does not terminate when the elder becomes incompetent). Elders, when competent, are presumed to have the capacity to civilly contest the elder's financial exploitation. This is often an empty right because the nature of the abuse includes intimidation and fear. Others who may challenge abuse include an elder's agents under power of attorney, a guardian ad litem, sometimes a trustee and a conservator or guardian if one has been appointed.

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