Contributor: Ronan Factora, MD
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Whether pressured by a desperate family member seeking money or duped by a scam artist who gains access to a bank account, seniors facing financial exploitation can suffer severe consequences — including negative effects on their health.
By some estimates, 4 to 5 percent of older adults in the United States have been victims of financial exploitation, making this as common as heart attacks in this population.
Neglect and self-neglect
Financial exploitation is but one facet of elder abuse. Commonly recognized in the form of physical abuse, elder abuse is also seen in neglect and self-neglect.
In the U.S, elder abuse affects about 1 in 10 individuals over the age of 65, with 23 or more cases going unreported for every one that is brought to light. For the victims of financial exploitation, the consequences can be far-reaching and devastating.
Many Americans look forward to the day they’ll be able to put their weekly routines aside and enjoy retirement.
It takes decades to realize this goal — after putting kids through school, paying mortgages, making car payments and covering myriad other expenses, all while saving for a time when Mondays no longer mean a return to work.
So much time and effort goes into building the nest egg — the target of so many schemes in recent years as more and more older Americans face financial exploitation.
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A domino effect
Once someone’s income starts being depleted, many things have to be given up. Discretionary items fall to the wayside first: vacations, hobbies and leisure activities.
One may lose the ability to leave an inheritance. Even basic travel becomes difficult when a person can’t afford auto insurance and fuel. Then, paying for basic utilities becomes a challenge, leading to late fees and threats power will be shut off.
Personal health becomes compromised as medication costs overtake retirement income.
Even a person’s ability to stay in his or her own home becomes threatened, due to the loss of sufficient funds to pay for rent, taxes or water.
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How to recognize the signs
So why hasn’t the issue of financial exploitation been tackled? The problem with elder abuse in general and financial exploitation specifically is that many people are unable to recognize it.
Deficiency in training is the key reason physicians cite for a lack of knowledge in this area.
In fact, surveys have shown that the vast majority of doctors remember being trained to recognize child abuse, but few were trained to recognize elder abuse.
Though signs of physical abuse are more easily identified, other types of abuse and neglect can be subtle. These can include:
- Losing weight
- Missing medical appointments
- Failing to fill medications
- Loss of funds, due to large withdrawals, overpayments and victimization from fraud
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A community responsibility
Physicians have the opportunity and the responsibility to spot abuse, but the signs could also be detected by so many other people.
This includes the bank teller who identifies several large, unusual withdrawals from an account, the pharmacist who is aware of unfilled medication prescriptions or ones that have not been picked up and friends who see changes in an elderly person’s appearance and mood that may indicate more problems with self care.
It should be a community responsibility to get to know our seniors, engage them regularly and recognize and address concerning changes.
That’s why, in many states, mandated reporters for elder abuse include any individual, from the physician to the janitor working in a nursing home, who has contact with an older person. This acknowledges we all have the opportunity to identify abuse.
It is so easy to pass off these clues and say, “It’s not my responsibility,” or “Someone else will take care of it.” But addressing the suspicion of wrongdoing can save a person from a lot of hardship.
This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.