Financial exploitation is a common and insidious form of elder abuse. It is something that often happens behind closed doors and goes unnoticed because it does not have the same clearly noticeable signs as some other forms of abuse or neglect. The National Council on Aging says that the financial abuse and fraud cases relating to elders cost at least $2.9 billion every year, with upper estimates being $36.5 billion.1
Elderly people who are living with dementia are at an elevated risk of financial exploitation because it is easier for loved ones and those in trusted caregiving positions to manipulate them or trick them into giving up financial resources. Exploitation can be in the form of theft, deceit, or coercive control.
The good news is that there are safeguards in place to help elderly people who are being taken advantage of financially. Here, I outline how to tell if someone is being financially abused, and what you can do to stop it.
What Are the Signs That a Senior With Dementia Is Being Abused Financially?
Financial abuse can be harder to spot than other forms of abuse, but there are usually signs that it is happening. When a person is living with the effects of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, they become a target for scammers both from outside the family and within it.
If you think someone is taking advantage of an elderly person with dementia, the most obvious sign is a change in their financial circumstances or the way they behave. The National Adult Protective Services Association lists some of the following as signs of financial abuse, or an elevated risk of abuse2:
- Utilities being cut off when the person previously was able to pay them
- Unpaid debts in spite of a regular pension or other income/savings
- A third party taking over their finances without consent or explanation
- Writing checks to ‘cash’
- The senior is unable to explain the status of their current finances in a reasonable way
- Cash or valuables going missing from their home
- Financial statements going missing/being hidden
- The senior suddenly starts spending a lot more or giving away money
- Property liens or foreclosure notices
What Should You Do If You Suspect Abuse of a Senior With Dementia?
If you are concerned that someone close to you is the victim of elder abuse, you have a few options depending on how well you know the older person and the person that you think is taking advantage of them. You may wish to:
- Talk to the older person to understand their position and reassure them that help is available should they feel they need it.
- Gather more information either through talking to the senior in question or approaching their family members. Make sure you have as much information as possible available before voicing suspicions.
- Contact the senior’s financial institutions. They may not be able to divulge information to you, but the Senior Safe Act of 2018 3 allows banks to block transactions to prevent financial fraud or abuse of seniors.
- Report the abuse to Adult Protective Services or law enforcement, depending on whether you think the abuse is being perpetrated by a family member or is a form of fraud or theft.
How Do You Report Elder Abuse?
The National Adult Protective Services Association4 investigates reports of elder abuse from mandatory reporters and also from members of the general public.
If the person whom you have concerns about is living in an assisted living facility and you fear that they are being exploited by one of the members of staff, you have the option of complaining to the facility’s management. If you feel that your complaints are not properly addressed, then you can also make a complaint with your local branch of the Long Term Care Ombudsman. 5
When you report abuse of the elderly to an agency, they may not be able to tell you what they are doing about it due to privacy concerns, but they are obliged to take complaints seriously and investigate them.
How to Discuss Potential Abuse with a Senior
Remember that many seniors are proud and may be embarrassed to find themselves in such a difficult or embarrassing situation. Approach any conversations about financial abuse carefully and with compassion. Let your loved one know that you’re here to help and not judge, and that support is available to them.
It may take them a little while to feel comfortable discussing the issue, but removing shame from conversations about money can go a long way towards enabling them to open up about the financial exploitation that they have been facing.
Frequently Asked Questions/FAQ:
What is it called when you take advantage of an elderly person?
Taking advantage of an elderly person with dementia is known as elder abuse. In cases where the abuse is financial, it is referred to as financial exploitation. Financial exploitation can take the form of theft, scams, deception, coercive control or threats. Elder abuse is a crime, although the penalties vary from state to state.
How do you stop someone from taking advantage of the elderly?
If you are concerned that someone is taking advantage of an elderly loved one, you should first of all talk to that person and try to determine what is going on. If, after investigating the situation you are still worried about their financial safety or circumstances, you can report the issue to their bank, the National Adult Protective Services Association, or, if applicable, the Long Term Care Ombudsman in your area.
How can you protect a parent with dementia?
The best way to protect a parent with dementia is to encourage them to take good care of their health and to talk to them about their finances and their overall well-being. Encourage them to appoint someone that they trust with the power of attorney so that they can feel confident that their financial affairs are well-managed.6 Make sure that this trusted person knows all of the financial institutions that your parent is engaged with. Have a second trusted person sent copies of all financial statements so that they can watch for unusual activity. With two people looking after the finances, fraud becomes less likely and harder to accomplish. Appointing a professional to manage bills and assets may also be a good idea.
What are the most common forms of elder abuse?
Financial abuse is just one of the more common forms of elder abuse. Other forms of abuse include physical abuse, mistreatment or neglect and verbal or emotional abuse. All forms of abuse are illegal, harmful and can seriously damage a senior’s health and wellbeing.
Elder abuse is a serious problem and it is more common than many people may think. From stealing cash that an elderly person keeps hidden under their mattress, to ‘helping out’ by managing bills but skimming money off the top, there are many schemes that an older person can fall victim to.
Often, the signs of elder abuse go unnoticed at first. A formerly outgoing and generous senior who usually buys candy for their friends at the senior center every week may suddenly withdraw and stop doing that with no explanation. A senior who was once well-off may suddenly have their phone or electricity cut off and be unable to explain why. These things may not be huge to outsiders, but to someone who knows the senior well they’re a massive change, and any change should be investigated.
In some cases, the fraudulent activity may not escalate to the level that the senior notices it, but the fraudster could be depleting the senior’s retirement funds, or a family member’s inheritance, quite rapidly and leave the senior in a difficult position should they be faced with large health care bills.