Financial Elder Abuse, Again

The current cover story of "Consumer Reports" makes us take another, long look at a widespread, growing, and underreported form of elder abuse, the financial fraud kind.

The current cover story of “Consumer Reports” makes us take another, long look at a widespread, growing, and underreported form of elder abuse, the financial fraud kind. Even “Pickles,” the daily cartoon about an elder couple is currently running a series on “That nice Nigerian prince who needs my financial help.”

Various agencies estimate that the scope of the problem is that as many as 20%, 1 in 5, senior Americans have been duped, scammed, or otherwise defrauded of their hard-won savings. The estimates could be low, for reporting is sketchy. The reasons include not even knowing that you have been defrauded, fear of embarrassment, fear of reprisals, and loss of independence.

Seniors are the most vulnerable group to go after, because of the current small chance of prosecution, their higher than average accumulated assets, and their sometimes mental and emotional vulnerability. Why take on the risk of bank robbery when you can just make a phone call?

Seniors are prone to be helpful, they are often lonely and easily flattered by the attention to build trust, and their judgement may be impaired by meds or cognitive decline. Furthermore, loss of friends and family, family discord, and financial worries also work against their keeping their financial guards up.

The other great area of senior financial fraud and abuse beside unwanted stranger approaches, I am sorry to say, is friends and family members using their trusted relationships to take unwarranted advantage of this vulnerable population.

I recall an elderly patient who decided to take to bed and stop eating and drinking. Her family was there when I arrived, encircling her bed. “Mom is strong willed and cannot be talked out of this,” they said. I unsuccessfully tried offering alternatives. Fearing she had been manipulated for early distribution of her considerable estate, our retirement institution called in their lawyers. Unfortunately, they too were stymied, so she died with a big question mark hanging over the heads of every outside the family. Many of these cases intersect medicine, ethics, legal issues, and family dynamics. Gird your loins, many more such conundrums are on their way as the ranks of aging Baby Boomers swell and docs can expect to be in the midst of them.

To combat this alarming trend of elder financial abuse, many jurisdictions are creating new laws, hotlines, task forces, and awareness campaigns. But ultimately, it is everyone’s personal responsibility to discuss these issues in their own family for prevention’s sake. Go on the net for many helpful links, read books, hire an elder lawyer, and/or get involved in your senior family member’s financial awareness and affairs.

All of this is problematic because in America, we’d rather discuss our medical problems, relationship issues, even politics and religion, rather than open up our financial lives. And a lack of communication never ends well, so suck it up and broach the subject as best you can. You will never know what depths of financial fraud trouble you prevent diving into, but knowing about others’ missteps out there that you have avoided should be comforting. It’s ironic, but we never get credit for what we have prevented, in medicine or in financial fraud.