We are encouraged to say something if we see something. I did and found my voice.
a hidden epidemic, one that will spread as the stress of financial hardships resulting from widespread unemployment and economic turmoil grows. It has no cure and the only known preventative is in the actions society takes. I learned it was essential not only to understand what I was seeing, but to have the courage to speak up.
National Council on Aging, NCOA, (www.ncoa.org) reports that approximately 1 in 10 Americans aged 60+ have experienced some form of elder abuse, with estimates as high as 5 million elders abused each year. Elder abuse is broadly defined to include all types–such as neglect, physical, emotional, and verbal abuse–one study estimates that only .07% of cases are reported to authorities.
When narrowed down to financial abuse and exploitation, the statistics are even more grim with the American Association of Retired Persons (www.aarp.org) stating that 1 in 44 cases are reported. Of those, few were prosecuted and even fewer resulted in conviction.
I held a natural reticence toward silence when I considered something was a private matter or a family affair. Husbands and wives quarrel. Parents reprimand children. Without physical harm, I did not understand my duty to report.
In elder financial exploitation, a bias exists to blame the victim. Granny should have read the fine print better or she freely chose that her child should have a new car or fancy vacation. It’s none of our business to question her decisions or to question the sudden apparent wealth of her child. By blaming the victim, we absolve ourselves of taking action.
I politely demurred and kept my silence until I realized the perpetrator banked on that, making me complicit in the crimes.
There is a price to the elder for our silence. NCOA stated elder victims have a 300% higher risk of death when compared to those who have not been mistreated. Then there is the price of the concerned person who breaks the silence and dares to question the bonds of trust within a family. I know this because I am paying the price of breaking my silence. By honoring the trust of a beloved elder, I betrayed the trust of a family member by seeking help.
At its core, trust is a slippery weapon when used against the elder. Age or illness may have diminished their abilities, but trust and judgment remain as their tools for retaining independence and relevance. The World Health Organization recognizes an “expectation of trust” exists between the older person and their abuser. The elder writes checks or signs documents with trust, even as their eyesight may fail them or their ability to decipher terms wanes. Two-thirds of abusers are those who the elder naturally trust the most.
The New England Journal of Medicine reports, "Perpetrators are most likely to be adult children or spouses, and they are more likely to be male, to have a history of past or current substance abuse, to have mental or physical health problems, to have a history of trouble with the police, to be socially isolated, to be unemployed or have financial problems, and to be experiencing major stress . . . Most studies indicate that older women are more likely than older men to be victims of abuse.” (emphasis added)
The urge to protect the abuser is my beloved elder’s greatest hurdle. Like other elder victims, she is embarrassed and will not admit to harm in fear of the consequences the perpetrator may face. Age has made her increasingly dependent on others and often the abuser is the person she most relies upon for her support. By taking action against the abuser, she risks increased isolation.
Laws, created to protect, necessitate the elder to bear witness against the perpetrator, leading to few Orders of Protection and abysmally low conviction rates. Legal standards to prove duress or fear are not calibrated to the frail.
I did not challenge my own silence when learning of a single instance of misappropriation. Yet, repeated instances exposed her inner turmoil and caused my concern. The family did not want to see abuse and challenged my intrusion. The authorities supported me and encouraged her to break her own silence, even while acknowledging the devilish difficultly in prosecution.
With the weakening of our economy, incidences of elder financial exploitation will inevitably rise. As employment weakens, it may be the elder with the only secure source of income through their Social Security, investments, or retirement plan. They are ripe for harm. We need to help elders by recognizing the patterns of abuse that evidence financial exploitation.
There is a time in life when the child becomes the caregiver, the overseer and the protector. As a parent or guardian, we would never let a child be bullied, abused, or hurt. As the tables turn, we must offer that same code of protection to our aging population. It is our time to speak up and ensure our elders are safe and protected.