Sunday, November 13, 2011

Elder Abuse: A national emergency. What women need to know.

'Never lie, never cheat, never steal." - John Wooden,  (1910-2010) American basketball coach.

It may begin innocently enough with a family member dropping in to help an elderly parent pay monthly bills. It may be a live-in caregiver who begins calling his client “mom.”

How about the financial adviser who offers to manage a large investment portfolio for an elderly couple whom he has met at church?

At some point the person paying the monthly bills is spending the elderly person's money on themselves and giving themselves an early inheritance. The caregiver has his elderly patron rewrite her will giving him a half million dollars when she dies.

The financial manager can not resist the temptation to tap into his clients’ nest egg, stealing more than $1 million.

These scenarios all are true and shed light on a growing national issue ….financial exploitation of the elderly. Nine times out of 10 the abuse is by a family member and experts estimate that only one in 25 cases ever is reported.

Older people are living longer. Older people have all the money. That combination is in some cases tearing families apart as siblings compete for parental favor and money and giving unscrupulous caregivers opportunities to steal.

In some cases what may have started out as a workable plan to help mom turns into a nightmare with the elderly parent trapped in their own home in an abusive and controlling relationship, experts say. Women generally are at higher risk because they tend to out-live their spouses.

“Thieves…family members or not…count on their abusive behavior to not come to light,” said Dianna Kretzschmar, program coordinator for a new Elder Abuse Justice Center in Vancouver, Wash., that opened this year to more effectively handle financial exploitation and abuse cases. The center is the first like it in Washington state where the latest data show more than 12,600 abuse cases were reported in 2009 including 4,061 financial exploitation cases.

Kretzschmar sees the center’s case load expanding “exponentially” compounded by a growing generational gap between haves and have nots.
“Our elderly are generally those who came out of the Depression, who saved and didn’t have credit cards,” she said. “They didn’t take on debt and they lived within your means. They are not equipped to handle the world we have now…frankly they’re sitting ducks.”

Wealth gap

A recent report showed that the wealth gap between younger and older Americans is the greatest that it has ever been. Households headed by people 65 and older have a net worth 47 times greater than households headed by someone under 35. That's the greatest spread ever and five times worse than it was just six years ago.

The problem in going to get worse, especially in these difficult economic times, as people live longer, Kretzschmar said.
Carol Sloan, Adult Protection Services program manager for Washington state, said investigators and agencies are struggling to get on top of the growing problem.

“Every state defines target populations differently,” Sloan said. “New national legislation has been passed but is unfunded.”

With the baby boomer population wave heading toward retirement the number of seniors 65 and older in the U.S. population is expected to increase from 39.6 million in 2009 to 72.1 million in 2030.

Washington Post newspaper financial columnist Michelle Singletary took up the cause this month with support of a nationwide Prevent Elder Financial Abuse Call-in program.

Phone lines were staffed by certified financial planners, heath-care professionals and adult protective services professionals who gave out advice and guidance on how to protect against investment fraud.

The call-in (now completed) was sponsored by the Investor Protection Trust, which offers a wealth of information at

In her column, Singletary shared the story of Jeffrey Butler, a California man who bilked 124 elderly investors out of more than $11 million in a Ponzi scheme. Butler was convicted and given a 90-year prison sentence. Butler, according to an Orange County District Attorney’s report, first met many of his victims while operating a company that offered to assist senior citizens in creating living wills, trusts and other estate planning structures.

Nine in 10 are family

But investment fraud is a small part of the financial exploitation picture with much greater risk coming from family members who see grandma’s assets and Social Security check as free money.

“As elders become more physically frail, they’re less able to stand up to bullying or to fight back if attacked,” say the experts at the National Center on Elder Abuse. “They may not see or hear as well or think as clearly as they used to, leaving openings for unscrupulous people to take advantage of them.”
On the other hand, mental or physical ailments may make them more trying companions for the people who live with them thus creating an atmosphere of entitlement.

More than half a million reports of abuse against elderly Americans reach authorities every year, and millions more cases go unreported, said center experts.

Abuse may take many forms:

- Physical abuse. Physical elder abuse is non-accidental use of force against an elderly person that results in physical pain, injury, or impairment. Such abuse includes not only physical assaults such as hitting or shoving but the inappropriate use of drugs, restraints, or confinement.

- Emotional abuse. In emotional or psychological senior abuse, people speak to or treat elderly persons in ways that cause emotional pain or distress.

- Financial abuse. That may mean slowly taking over the elderly person’s check book and using it to pay for unrelated personal expenses. It may mean using the elderly homeowner’s money to buy unwanted items such as TVs, appliances and cars. Or it could mean “borrowing” from a savings account and never paying it back, talking the person into an unneeded reverse mortgage to get at more money or pushing a vulnerable person into bad investments with a high commission, over and over. One car dealer in the Vancouver area sold several new cars all in one year to a demented old man because he couldn’t remember the prior deals. He lost thousands on every trade-in. Family members stopped the situation. The money was paid back.

Family abuse has history
Dianna Kretzschmar said in many cases family members are “acting out” long-standing dysfunctional behavior within the family unit.
“Family members may have a sense of entitlement or they may be ill-equipped to handle a disabled parent,” she said. “The problem is that as any greed goes, it gets bigger and bigger.”
Kretzschemar puts the blame in certain situations on the parent who invites an unqualified family member to help them with their finances. An out of work grandson may not be the best choice.

“People should not do what is expeditious but instead put thought into who they might trust in their house or who they want handling your money,” she said.

(Turning your assets over to a bank trust department may be one answer. See my earlier post at

Spotting elder abuse

The National Center on Elder Abuse offers these tips for spotting abuse:
- Intimidation through yelling or threats. Threatening, belittling, or controlling caregiver behavior that you witness. Behavior from the elder that mimics dementia, such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling to oneself

- Humiliation and ridicule.

- Habitual blaming or scapegoating.

- Non-verbal psychological elder abuse can take the form of ignoring the elderly person, isolating an elder from friends or activities and terrorizing or menacing the elderly person

- Significant withdrawals from the elder’s accounts. Sudden changes in the elder’s financial condition. Items or cash missing from the senior’s household. Suspicious changes in wills, power of attorney, titles, and policies. Addition of names to the senior’s signature card. Unpaid bills or lack of medical care, although the elder has enough money to pay for them. Financial activity the senior couldn’t have done, such as an ATM withdrawal when the account holder is bedridden.
 Unnecessary services, goods, or subscriptions

In addition there is a whole category of health care fraud that involves duplicate billings, overmedication and inadequate care even though bills are paid.

According to the national abuse center, “many nonprofessional caregivers — spouses, adult children, other relatives and friends — find taking care of an elder to be satisfying and enriching. But the responsibilities and demands of elder caregiving, which escalate as the elder’s condition deteriorates, can also be extremely stressful.”

The stress of elder care can lead to mental and physical health problems that make caregivers burned out, impatient, and unable to keep from lashing out against elders in their care, said center experts.

Reporting abuse

Abuse experts urge family and friends who suspect elder abuse to call Adult Protection Services in their area.

The National Center on Elder Abuse offers a hot line at 800-677-1116 or at its Web site at

 Local Adult Protective Services operate in most cities and towns with staff available to look into possible abuse cases.

“This can be done anonymously with no repercussions,” Kretzschmar said. “All you’re saying is that you think there might be something wrong, that you have concerns. APS investigates and may find nothing or findings may be inconclusive. We need to remember that the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing, she said.

For more:
My radio interview with Steve Leader on KXL 101.1 FM in Portland, Ore., click here.
The National Center on Elder Abuse, click here.
Check List for Dealing with Elder Financial Abuse, click here.
"Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder" by Paul Mason at
How bank trusts work" at
"Making Sense of Life's Changes" by William Bridges.
"MacArthur  Fellow Leads Fight Against Elder Abuse," USATODAY, click here.

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