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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

5. Fear, Shame, and Love: The Hidden Epidemic of Elder Financial Exploitation Part Five: Resources

[This is the final of a series of articles leading up to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, 2021] 

Part Five: Resources

Today, June 15, marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Started in conjunction with the United Nations and the World Health Organization, WEAAD seeks to increase understanding and awareness of the “cultural, social, economic, and demographic processes affecting elder abuse and neglect. . . [while] acknowledging the significance of elder abuse as a public health and human rights issue. WEAAD serves as a call-to-action for individuals, organizations, and communities to raise awareness about elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.”

Abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, or financial. Neglect and abandonment are also recognized forms of abuse. State and federal laws seek to protect elders and vulnerable adults by codifying criminality and identifying illegal acts. This series of articles has focused on the insidious and vastly underreported crime of financial exploitation and abuse against elders. The crime is equally as damaging as other abuses. Most victims are unaware that they have legal protections due to their medical vulnerabilities or simply age. Many states define “elder” as anyone over 60.

Unlike other abuses that may have visible signs of harm like bruises or poor hygiene, financial abuse has few outward signs. The predator may physically or emotionally isolate the elder from supportive friends or family, so clues may go unnoticed. Friends may be reluctant to question changes to wills or financial documents fearing overstepping into private matters. Behavior changes like anxiety, depression, and evasiveness may not trigger an inquiry into the root cause.

Contrary to popular assumptions, financial exploitation is not a problem only of the wealthy. Elders may receive Social Security benefits or enjoy savings or a pension plan that other family members do not have. Because elders may be the only family members with a steady stream of income, experts fear a hidden epidemic of financial abuse as the impact of COVID is fully realized. Victimization occurs through unpaid loans, theft, coerced or fraudulently signed documents like home deeds, wills, or Powers of Attorney. Family dynamics and embarrassment add to the reluctance of an elder to report a crime. Saving face and not wanting “to get anyone in trouble” contribute to financial exploitation is a hidden epidemic. With Baby Boomers reaching retirement age at the rate of over 10,000 per day, the impacted class of potential victims is burgeoning and becoming what experts in the field refer to as an “incoming tsunami of disaster.”

Most predators don’t see themselves or have others see them, as evil people. They are the sons, spouses, daughters, grandchild, close neighbor, landlord, or trusted professional. Bad actors come in all shapes and sizes. They feel entitled to overrule the elder’s wishes for inheritance or money flow for a variety of reasons. Many do not see replacing the elder’s decisions with their own as criminal. The elder’s wealth is “owed” to them because of perceived past sleights or current needs. Predators discount the elder’s wishes to treat siblings equally. Estate and financial plans and the powers that they provide are prime targets for abusive acts.

The most common profile of a predator is a family member in distress. They may have substance abuse issues, but most likely have financial stresses. They may view themselves as being entitled to the assets of the elders by either birthright or proximity; they are the person “on deck” handling the elder’s day-to-day needs while remaining oblivious that their actions may have directly contributed to that elder’s isolation from outside supports.

The elders themselves become the perfect victims. A parent may hide the crime out of a need to protect their child from legal consequences, or a tenant may not complain in fear of eviction from a landlord. The victim feels shame that they “allowed” a family member or close friend to take advantage of them. They don’t want anyone to get into trouble. They just want the actions to stop. The elder victim will often blur the truth to investigators–the very people who are trying to help stop the financial drain. A toxic mix of co-dependency with the abuser and embarrassment contribute to the invisibility of the crime.

How can you protect yourself or another from harm? Good estate and financial planning are essential as well as communicating your wishes to others who do not have a financial or emotional stake in the outcome. Changes to estate documents are a common ploy to alter an inheritance plan. Having a will, trust documents, healthcare proxy, living will, Powers of Attorney are your first line of defense. Sticking to the plan and withstanding pressure to change documents is the second. For many, this is easier said than done.

If you know of a vulnerable adult or someone over 60 years of age whom you suspect to be a victim of financial exploitation, there are resources to help you understand the crime as well as to help the person. Search “(State’s Name) Elder Abuse” to further the process of understanding how you can help. Many states have adult protective services agencies that will listen to your concerns on a confidential basis and conduct an investigation if warranted. Your state attorney general’s office will have a group dedicated to all forms of elder abuse.

National organizations often have referral links to your state’s agencies.


National Center of Elder Abuse


American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Information on Fraud Types and Prevention


National Institute of Health/National Institute on Aging


National Guardianship Association


National Institute of Justice


National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys


 Part One: The Crime 

Part Two: Predators

Part Three: The Perfect Victims

Part Four: Bad Actors

Part Five: Resources


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.