85 year old Miss X was contact by a man claiming to be from her bank. He asked for her help in catching someone who was trying to defraud the bank. Miss X agreed to meet him and gave him $3,000. Her niece contacted us shortly thereafter.
Mrs. Y lives in a nursing home. She is still taking care of her finances, with the help of her daughter. Her daughter became concerned when she could not figure out why her mother’s bank account was going down so fast. It turns out that Mrs. Y. was continually receiving mail from charities requesting help. She gave. And gave. She could not remember to whom she had given, or when her last donation had been, or even if the group was someone she had supported in the past.
Mrs. Z., also living in a nursing home, paid her own bills, and was generally able to keep track of her payments. The trouble was that she was spending more than her income, and could not figure out how to cut down. When we looked at her bills, we noticed that, among other things,she was renting a telephone from the phone company. The monthly cost was under $20.00 but the contract was for three years. That meant that the phone would have cost her hundreds of dollars. When we contacted the phone company, they insisted that Mrs. Z. was getting a good deal on this phone.
What happened to Miss. X, Mrs. Y,. and Mrs. Z. are examples of the less well known ways in which older people are taken advantage of financially. The AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) holds that 40% of financial scams are aimed at the elderly. Financial mismanagement and financial abuse are quite common among the elderly. The latter problem is the one that commonly receives attention. Estimates of financial abuse of the elderly in the U.S. range from 20-60%.One out of three cases of abuse that are uncovered are instances of financial abuse, often perpetrated by family members or hired caregivers. It is important, however, that we be aware of, and alert to, the less common ways and times that our elderly can lose their money.
The elderly are perhaps at greater risk today than ever, largely because of the ease with which people and organizations have access to them. For example, many seniors are online, mailing lists are bought and sold, and phone numbers are published. TV and radio advertising arrive in everyone’s living room, and the phone numbers of nursing home and other seniors residences are freely available.
Older people may also be at risk during a kind of a “gray zone” period, in which they are handling their finances with diminished capacity. They may not be at the point where they could be declared legally incompetent or a power of attorney could be invoked, but the capacity for decision making and judgment may be impaired to some degree. Often, there is a slow onset of dementia and family members may not realize there is a problem, or the extent of the problem. No one is monitoring the older person.
There also may be psychosocial factors which put the elderly at risk for financial mismanagement or abuse– loneliness and isolation, pride and the desire to be independent, shame about memory loss, or the inability to say no to advertising or phone solicitations. Helping a charity,a bank or just someone with a story can make them feel useful, cared about, and important.
Perversely, with an increasing emphasis on respecting the right of the individual, there is more opportunity for elderly people to be taken advantage of. Common wisdom among experts in gerontology and geriatrics will stress to family members that it is important that the older person maintains their dignity. Family members often do not know when to intervene for the same reason. Even the legal system makes it difficult–in the end, it has to be proven that an older person is incompetent before someone can take over finances. This can be an expensive and time consuming process.
There needs to be a multi-pronged approach to protecting older people from being taken advantage of financially. There is a responsibility of corporations and charities to be aware of the people they are targeting. Although it would be difficult, there should be a code of ethics developed under which they operate so that they are not targeting people who may be vulnerable. Family members need to be aware of who is phoning and what kind of mail is coming into an elderly relative’s home. Nursing homes and other seniors residences need to be aware of mail and soliciting, and work with residents and families to restrict it.
Educating Seniors Can Decrease Vulnerability
It is essential that families and Seniors be aware of the ways in which the latter can be vulnerable. As noted in the article above, the subject can be sensitive for many reasons, but it needs to be approached.
Family members can talk with an older relative by starting off with a statement such as, ” Dad, I heard the other day about….and I began to worry.” This makes the concern real, but does not accuse the older person of incompetence. It focuses the problem on the family member–their worry.
Seniors residences and Seniors Centres can also approach the subject by providing educational seminars. In some areas, there are educational programmes put on by the community. As the most effective learning often comes from peers, an ideal approach would be to have seniors educating seniors; if someone who has fallen prey to scams or marketing is on a team, it can make the impact of programmes stronger. In any setting, interactional educational sessions could be developed in which people discuss potential risks from scammers and marketing. This “self-help” approach encourages them to take responsibility for themselves and to support each other.