A recent study estimates that financial abuse of elderly Americans defrauds these vulnerable citizens of almost $37 billion each. The report finds that almost 5 million senior citizens in America are victims of elder abuse each year. In New York alone, financial abuse of the elderly costs at least $1.5 billion a year. While the exact nature of financial abuse can be hard to notice for senior citizens with cognitive impairments, the legal definition perpetuated in the Older Americans Act of 2006 criminalizes “the fraudulent or otherwise illegal, unauthorized, or improper act or process of an individual… that uses the resources of an older individual for monetary or personal benefit, profit, or gain, or that results in depriving the older individual of their use or rightful access to benefits, resources, belongings, or assets.”
The report in Bloomberg Businessweek provides a sad, but unfortunately typical, portrait of elder abuse in 82-year-old Marjorie Jones, who one day received an anonymous call stating she had won a sweepstakes. According to the caller, Jones, who was legally blind and lived alone, would need to pay the taxes and fees on the winnings before the winnings from the sweepstakes could be released to her. After wiring the money to the anonymous caller, more stipulations and conditions became attached and Jones continued to send the money until she had depleted her entire savings, taking out a reverse mortgage on her home, and cashing in on a life insurance policy. Instead of reaching out to her family for help, an ashamed and embarrassed Jones killed herself.
Financial abuse is a form of elder abuse and illegal in all fifty states, however; the crime often goes unreported. According to New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services, for every case of reported elder abuse there are 44 cases that go unreported. The reasons for the crime commonly goes unreported are numerous. First, the crime is often committed by family members and many elderly Americans are loathe to turn in their own family – or, sadly, even recognize the fraud being perpetuated upon them by someone they trust. Second, because the perpetrator of financial abuse is typically a caretaker, many elderly Americans fear the loss of their independence and ending up in a nursing home, or otherwise separated from their life. Finally, the cognitive impairment that makes them vulnerable to predators can keep them from realizing the abuse or reporting it to authorities.
Elder abuse – including, but not limited to, financial abuse of the elderly – is a “public health crisis” in the country. According to Mark Lachs, now co-chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, elder abuse victims die at a rate three times faster than elderly Americans who are not being abused. Elizabeth Loewy, former director of the elder abuse unit in Manhattan District Attorney Office, said, “many family members told me, ‘I can’t prove it, but this killed him.’”