An Eye Out for Elder Financial Abuse

Elder financial abuse is all around us and is increasing, as horrible as that may sound, but we need to be aware of it and ready to take responsible action if we see it.

It's in the nature of things that in a world of scarce resources, the younger generation is in a hurry to relieve the previous generation of its accumulated assets. What makes this old news more up to date and urgent is that about 10,000 Baby Boomers are retiring every day and there are many friends, relatives, professionals and crooks, who are all too willing to accelerate the financial transition — sometimes with, and sometimes without, good intentions.

The fact of senior vulnerability has been aided by both the increasing complexity of financial affairs in general and by the recent medical prolongation of physical life. Unfortunately, for us, our increasing ability to extend physical well-being has not been matched by our ability to reduce cognitive decline and Alzheimer's among seniors. Ergo, opportunity has increased to scramble for the record amount of assets accumulated by the post-WWII generation.

The 50 million Americans over the age of 62 — one-fifth of the population — and the potential for harm to them, has gotten the attention of legislators and the law as well. For example, in California, there is now a legal requirement for bank employees to report suspected financial elder abuse, much as doctors and teachers are required to report suspected child abuse.

As an example of how complicated these matters can get, once I attended an elderly woman with a variety of physical problems in a retirement community who took to her bed and said she was going to stop eating and drinking until she died. She was not overtly depressed and resisted any medication or counseling for that possibility. Her family was in attendance and reported that she had always been strong-willed and that was that. But the alarm bells went off in the Community's legal department and they investigated to make sure that she had not been arm-twisted by her family to acquire her estate earlier than nature would allow. In spite of daily visits and interviews, she persisted and died in about 10 days. I still wonder what else might have been going on, and what else our team might have done.

I also recall a senior in an assisted-living situation who regularly required a family member to cash large checks for stacks of $100 bills. The family member said that they had no choice but to comply because the patient appeared competent, strong-willed and it was "his money." The resident's community had an absolute ban on tipping, and the executive director, the staff and the family enabler denied any overt or covert pressure on this vulnerable man. The situation was complicated by the fact that he was a lifelong big tipper and said, when confronted, "Leave it alone. It's in my best interest." He died shortly thereafter, before the "mystery" could see the light of day.

I am sure that situations such as these, rife with opportunity, vulnerability and ethical complexity, are being acted out daily all over the country. What can a doctor, or concerned family member, do? First of all, become educated and aware at the Elder Financial Protection Network and the National Center on Elder Abuse. Then, put up your antennae as you go through your daily practice and even your personal family life.

Elder financial abuse is all around us and is increasing, as horrible as that may sound, but we need to be aware of it and ready to take responsible action if we see it.