March 27, 2019
Elderly Report Financial Abuse by Kids
A son uses his elderly mother’s ATM card at casinos and liquor stores or takes her to the bank to withdraw money from her account.
A woman reports that her sister stole thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry from their mother, who suffers from dementia.
An elderly couple assigns power of attorney to their son, only to watch him sell their house and spend the proceeds he was supposed to use to create a living space in his home for his parents.
News accounts like these are rare. But reports about financial abuse of the elderly are increasing. The problem lurks largely in the shadows, because parents view it as a private family affair and are loathe to file a police report, says Julie Schoen, attorney and deputy director of the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) at the University of Southern California.
“People just don’t want to do that to their loved one,” said Schoen, whose organization refers victims to the National Adult Protective Services Association for help.
Financial exploitation affects at least 5 percent of older Americans. The majority is perpetrated by family members, especially adult children, say researchers. Victims’ average age is 75, and African-Americans, the poor, disabled people, and elderly people living alone are common targets.
The problem is so poorly understood that advocates are raising awareness – Elderly Abuse Awareness Day is June 15 – and encouraging people to act when they suspect an elderly acquaintance, friend, or family member is the victim of financial abuse.
One form of abuse occurs when parents sign a power of attorney allowing a child to take over their financial affairs without reading or understanding the legal document. “Power of attorney is the heartbeat of your estate plan. A lot of people have them done and have no idea it’s in there,” she said.
Another situation was common after the 2008 financial crisis. NCEA saw a surge in reports of abuse by adult children who’d lost their homes and moved back in with their parents.
What’s so pernicious about parent abuse, Schoen said, is that it often starts with good intentions. For example, a son initially might feel a sense of purpose in caring for his aging parent. But the feeling can turn into resentment. The next stage might be that he thinks he should be paid for his time as a caregiver or has a right to dip into his parent’s accounts to get an advance on an inheritance.
Elderly people report that children “were buying my groceries and helping me, and now they’re helping themselves,” Schoen said.
NCEA has tips on what to do if you suspect financial abuse:
- Report it to National Adult Protective Services, a state and local organization that specifically handles adult abuse cases.
- Be alert to emotional or behavioral changes in an elderly person, such as anxiety, sadness, or isolation.
- Look for financial indications of trouble, such as unpaid bills, sudden changes in bank accounts, and unanticipated modifications to wills or financial documents.
Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.