[This is the first of a series of articles leading up to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, 2021.]
Part One: The Crime
Helen Younger’s* last words were, “You lied to me.”
What was left of her family had gathered at her bedside as the final hunger of Alzheimer’s was sated. Their faces had become strangers to her, and they clung to the surprise moments when her fog would lift and she would call a family member by name or comment on a recent accomplishment.
Their huddle was both to pay respects and homage to the family matriarch, but it was also protective. In her fading years, Helen had signed away most of her assets to Jane* and her son, Jack*. Helen’s life may have been coming to an end, but the ugly process of proving elder financial abuse and exploitation had only just begun.
The family stiffened when Jane walked into the room. The lines of conflict had already been drawn and Jane and Jack’s appearance had been negotiated through lawyers and guardians. Jane was a southern-based “Snow Bird” acquaintance of Helen and her husband for many years. New Hampshire Yankees at heart, the Youngers had accumulated millions with frugal living, smart real estate choices, and shrewd investing. After Helen had been widowed eight years earlier, Jane became Helen’s best friend. The family wanted to block Jane’s request for a final goodbye, but the court ruled no harm could come from a long-time friend bidding her final respects.
Jane entered the room with exclamations of love and missives for Helen. “We miss you and love you, Helen dear!”
“You lied to me.” Helen’s last words were directed to her one-time BFF.
Years before, the first trickle of money in Jane’s direction looked like the generosity of a well-off friend to a modest-means buddy. Shopping trips started as buying a blouse or trinket for Jane, but then slowly morphed to full-blown wardrobes and more for Jane, her son, and another “friend.” Helen’s wardrobe, however, remained stuck in 1980’s neons with padded shoulders.
Those warning signs could be explained away. “Oh, it’s just a little shopping with the girls,” Helen could say, but the family grew worried at the increasing credit card charges. They faced a common junction: Their beloved elder had begun to make questionable decisions. Eccentricity and quirks are the privilege of old age. Helen brushed aside voiced concerns. A person has the right to do with their assets as they damned well pleased. Just because a son or daughter objects, or the money-flow is outside a “norm,” doesn’t mean the expenditures are illegal or wrong. “My money. My choice,” is a common refrain. Helen’s children and grandchildren hit an all-too-common wall.
Freedom to choose worries countless families who face the same dilemma. Long before it was clear that Helen was losing her abilities to discern “fraud” from “freedom,” Jane was embedding herself deeper into Helen’s private affairs. Helen had been living the vibrant life of a robust retiree at a posh assisted living community in Florida. Family noted nothing unusual during their visits, but would admit that visits and phone calls are different than seeing someone’s day-to-day life. Troublesome patterns could go unnoticed. Close friendships often provide an early warning to family members for memory issues that are more than a senior moment. Another set of eyes from a helpful friend can be a blessing and provide crucial insights into behaviors and health. Personal boundaries vary, so one friend’s “help” can be another friend’s “intrusion.” Trust becomes a bankable asset. Trusting Jane, Helen divulged financial details.
More warnings happened. Family members compared notes and realized the mysterious Jane was omnipresent during their visits, giving them little privacy. In rare private moments, Helen became nervous and evasive when questioned about Jane, the increasing credit card bills, and the missing bank statements. A beloved family lake home was suddenly sold and the proceeds were unaccounted for. Names changed on investment accounts, or those accounts disappeared entirely. Tensions and suspicions escalated rapidly. Helen became increasingly deceptive. Jane insisted Helen’s decisions were unimpeachable.
The Subtle Crime
One doesn’t need to have diminished capacity to fall victim to a predator. The slide into Alzheimer’s can explain some of Helen’s behaviors, but victims of financial exploitation display similar evasiveness. Anxiety triggered by probing questions is not limited to individuals with ailing brains. In fact, those elders who have all their marbles can be even more deceptive and evasive of probing questions. Quite simply, they know something is wrong but feel powerless to stop it. They evade and hide the crime because they are embarrassed.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines exploitation as “. . . an act of forcing, compelling, or exerting undue influence over a vulnerable adult causing the vulnerable adult to act in a way that is inconsistent with relevant past behavior, or causing the vulnerable adult to perform services for the benefit of another.” (emphasis added) Broadly defined, “services” includes, but is not limited to, paying the influencer’s bills, co-signing loans, providing food, shelter, or transportation, providing employment or references, and signing documents without proper counsel such as deeds, leases, or Powers of Attorney. Elder exploitation is not a crime solely of the wealthy.
Identifying a “vulnerable adult” is not the hard part. Vulnerability can be developmental, medical, or behavior-based. More importantly, frailty and loneliness, both common issues among the elderly, are recognized contributors. What may surprise some is that most states define “elderly” as anyone over 60 years of age.
Exploitation of an otherwise healthy elder who has full capacity to make his or her own decisions is difficult to indentify, let alone prosecute. Embarrassment and the need to save face lead to defending the predator. Most victims just want the abuse to stop. They do not want the predator to ‘get into trouble.’ The result is the victim, as the key witness to the crime, will not testify against the predator. They become unwitting enablers of their own predicament.
Yet, Helen’s diagnosis identified her as a vulnerable adult, but it didn’t offer the family an easy path to resolution. Their story is a cautionary tale for all of our beloved elders regardless of their health.
Who are these predators? Who helps them? Are they “evil” people? What can we do to protect our loved ones?
The following articles will explore these questions and more. Not everything is as easy as we hope.
*All names have been changed upon the request of the family.
Elder abuse is a crime that can be physical, medical, financial, or emotional/behavioral in nature. Neglect and abandonment of an elder can be crimes as well. If you or a loved one is the subject of suspected abuse, call your local adult protective services to speak confidentially with a knowledgeable expert.