Tomorrow is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Financial exploitation of elders is becoming the primary form of elder abuse, often involving family members or even close elderly friends who prey on seniors to gain control of assets. The elder need not have dementia to be victimized. These predators take advantage of physical disabilities — vision, hearing, mobility — to gain an elder’s trust and isolate the elder, to control communication, transportation, medical care, and to access mail and credit cards, bank accounts and investments.
Legal mechanisms like power of attorney, guardianship/conservatorship or healthcare proxy can be obtained through misrepresentation, coercion, isolation and intimidation of an elder. The abuser then can use the victim’s assets to fight those trying to stop the exploitation.
In the “sweetheart scam,” a fraudster feigns romantic interest in a victim, manipulating the elder’s affections to persuade the victim into making decisions that benefit the perpetrator(s). The elder may become their pawn, unwittingly signing documents or taking actions against others on the abuser’s behalf.
Another form of abuse is “granny snatching.” An elder is taken out-of-state under false pretenses (a vacation?) to a perpetrator’s turf, isolated from the elder’s friends, family and familiar medical care. Once there, new legal and financial oversight (guardian, conservator, power of attorney) is obtained. The elder rarely returns.
Some states have agreements to deter “granny snatching.” Massachusetts does not and has many gaps in protection of elders.
Massachusetts maintains a statewide elder abuse hotline (1-800-922-2275) for reports from the public and mandated reporters (police, medical personnel, emergency responders, elder outreach workers, etc.) of physical, psychological or financial abuse. Yet, according to state budget discussions, between Oct. 2010 and March 2012, the Massachusetts Elder Protective Services “triaged” 3,962 abuse reports without investigation and without notice to original reporters that their abuse complaints were screened out!
Massachusetts Protective Services follows a policy of “self determination” when investigating abuse complaints. If an elder is “of capacity,” even while being influenced by an abuser, the elder can “self-determine” the scope of protective service’s abuse investigation, limiting the people investigators contact when they research the complaint. Their reports may be based on incomplete, false or biased information and available to other agencies, but kept secret from those directly affected. The result: perpetrators can flourish — with the help of protective services!
Last summer, legislators voted a special commission to investigate Massachusetts Elder Protective Services and issue a report by June 30, 2013. This special commission has yet to convene. Contact your legislators. Tell them you want action to stop elder abuse now.
Kendra Cooper is an elder services attorney in Woburn.