By Kevin Theissen
We are all, inexorably, marching toward old age. By 2030, 72 million Americans will be age 65 or older. The good news is longevity has been improving, and people are remaining healthy and vibrant at older ages.
The bad news is cultural perceptions of “old” people have not kept pace. A 2016 analysis by the World Health Organization found ageism was abundant and many people were completely unaware of their biases toward older people.
Psychology Today warned, “The especially slippery part about ageism is that we can witness it in action time and again throughout society, often without anything triggering our internal antennae that tells us ‘Hey, something is deeply amiss here.’”
Ageism and elder abuse
One of the ugly things hiding beneath the rock of ageism is elder abuse, including financial exploitation. During 2017, the Department of Health and Human Resources reported:
“Each year, an estimated 5 million older persons are abused, neglected, and exploited. In addition, elders throughout the United States lose an estimated $2.6 billion or more annually due to elder financial abuse and exploitation, funds that could have been used to pay for basic needs such as housing, food, and medical care. Unfortunately, no one is immune to abuse, neglect, and exploitation. It occurs in every demographic and can happen to anyone — a family member, a neighbor, even you. Yet it is estimated that only about one in five of those crimes are ever discovered.”
Just 2 percent of financial exploitation cases are ever reported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is one reason elder abuse has been dubbed a silent epidemic. There are many reasons older Americans don’t report abuse. Some may be afraid of retaliation or fear their misjudgment will cause them to lose independence. Others may be ashamed they’ve made a mistake or
embarrassed a family member has betrayed them. Additionally, older people may worry they won’t be believed or think they have no legal recourse.
Whether it is reported or not, financial crimes and scams can have potentially devastating consequences for the victims. U.S. News & World Report cautioned: “elder financial abuse — such as illegally or improperly taking funds or assets — can shake a victim’s financial footing and have a profound impact on that person’s wellbeing. Financial abuse can lead to significant distress, and research shows it can increase risk for depression.”
Elder financial exploitation also has consequences for taxpayers. One in 10 financial abuse victims becomes reliant on Medicaid after their monies have been stolen, according to the National Adult Protective Services Association.
Watch for signs in older relatives and friends
If you’re not sure whether older relatives or friends are safe from abuse, the U.S. Department of Justice has identified signs and symptoms that may indicate a problem. The first step is to stay in touch and ask questions to uncover any issues. In addition, it’s a good idea to watch for:
Sudden changes in bank account or banking practices, including withdrawals or transfers of large sums of money
New names on an older person’s bank signature card
Unauthorized ATM withdrawals
Changes to a will or other financial documents
The disappearance of money or valuable possessions
Forged signatures on financial transactions or for the titles of possessions
Previously uninvolved family members claiming the right to manage an older person’s affairs or appropriate their possessions
Plan ahead to protect yourself
Not everyone develops mental or physical infirmities as they age, but it may be better to plan ahead and have some control over the potential outcome than to ignore the problem. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority recommends investors take several steps to protect themselves. These include:
Taking inventory and getting organized. Gather all of your important financial documents, including bank, brokerage, and retirement plan statements, and give copies to one or more carefully chosen individuals (or make sure they know where the papers can be found).
Giving a list of emergency contacts to your financial professional. Make a list of people you trust—people your financial advisor can contact if you are acting confused or out of character or the advisor suspects something is wrong.
The Financial Planning Association recommends investors give financial professionals authorization letters that provide permission to contact designated family members, friends, or professionals.
Creating a durable financial power of attorney. A power of attorney allows someone else to become your agent and act on your behalf if you are incapacitated. You determine “under what circumstances the power of attorney goes into effect and what powers your agent will have over your finances, such as access to your bank account.”
Elder abuse and financial exploitation are all too common. It’s important to take steps to protect both our loved ones and ourselves. The best way to safeguard against the issue is to raise awareness among family and friends and stay in touch with potentially vulnerable parties.
Kevin Theissen is principal and financial advisor at Skygate Financial Group, LLC., located on Main Street in Ludlow, Vt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.