Elder Abuse – A Growing Epidemic by Jeanne M. West

Friends and neighbors, the issue of elder abuse is not abating. Although I have been writing about this in The Mesa Paper for nearly ten years, this tragedy seems only to be getting worse, not better.  Did you know that financial abuse represents the largest threat to seniors who are likely to suffer from both a personal, as well as a financial, impact to their well-being. 

It is estimated that elder financial abuse and fraud results in financial losses ranging from $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion annually.  It does not discriminate! Financial abuse affects seniors across all socio-economic groups, cultures and races.  It attacks rich and poor alike.  Sadder yet is the fact that elder abuse is predicted to increase substantially as our population is aging at unprecedented rates.

At last week’s annual “Safeguarding Our Elders from Abuse” conference here in Santa Barbara, we heard from Page Ulrey, J.D., Senor Deputy Prosecuting Attorney of the Elder Abuse Project at the Kings County Prosecuting Office in Seattle, Washington, that for every ONE case of elder financial abuse that is reported, it is projected that another 43 go unreported!  Unbelievable!  Ms. Ulrey outlined the case of an 88 year-old woman who was befriended by a new neighbor who cozied up to her after the woman’s adult daughter died of cancer.  Over a two-year period, the neighbor managed to get herself appointed as the woman’s Power of Attorney for Finance. (By the way, the woman was deemed mentally competent – just suffering the results of grief due to the death of her daughter.)  During that two-year timeframe, the new “best friend” borrowed over $230,000 from the elder, using all kinds of sad luck stories to convince the elder to lend her money.

There is a good outcome to the story.  With careful detective work, once the elder woman’s granddaughter became aware of the problem and reported it to the DA’s office in Seattle, a detailed investigation was pursued.  Thankfully, the elder wrote “LOAN” on each of the checks given to the neighbor, who used the money for her own purposes.  The perpetrator then used the money for purposes other than conveyed to the elder.  Pure and simple, the neighbor lied!  It took two years of digging, but this story had a favorable ending.

For those of us in the audience, this was a startling reminder that when anyone is under stress or recovering from a significant loss, they are very vulnerable to being taken advantage of by a slick perpetrator.  The elder was trying to connect with someone she thought cared about her after the loss of a daughter.  She just wanted to help the young woman.  But the lies were uncovered at the point where she was facing bankruptcy.  The money was not recovered, but the woman was jailed and family became more involved with the elder in a protective way.

Another focus of our annual conference had to do with sensitizing professionals to the issues faced by the LGBTQ community as they are aging.  We are urged to see each individual as a person, without a label, without a stereotype.  Two elder women shared their stories of “coming out” and how difficult and painful this was for them 30 and 40 years ago.  We tend not to think about how people are shunned and turned against because of their sexuality, but this too, can be a form of abuse.  For professionals who are caring for and supporting seniors, we must be sensitive to the issues of gender identity.  We must support, encourage and accept open expression of one’s identity and be alert to any signs of overt or covert discrimination.

Winding up the day was a presentation by Laurel Sykes of Montecito Bank and Trust who is their Vice President and Chief Risk Officer.  Ms. Sykes shared powerful stories of unsuspecting seniors who come into the bank to make large withdrawals to send money to slick scammers.  From Sweetheart scams to lotteries, from the Grandparent scam to phony charities, from social security scams to get rich quick schemes, to handyman scams, the thugs are out there to prey on our seniors to get their hard earned and long-saved money.  And not just a few bucks, but thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Elder abuse, be it abusive behavior or neglect, be it negative stereotyping and hate crimes against seniors or financial exploitation, does not going to go away anytime soon.  Please remember that June 15th is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.   I ask you to STOP, LOOK and LISTEN for signs of elder abuse.  Are you taking time to observe, listen and report any suspicious behavior that just might be a warning sign of Elder Abuse happening right before your eyes and ears?

Let’s protect our seniors.  Many of us are already in that category and others are not far behind.

The problem must stop growing!  Each of us needs to be aware of the signs and prevention strategies.

I ask each of you, regardless of your age, to be alert to signs of potential abuse and to make a report, should you suspect an elder is being abused.


Jeanne M. West