By Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho
There must have been a secret mark on the front of my father-in-law’s house only visible to scam artists. He lived alone and one day bought a freezer full of fish. A month later, the same sales person sold him another freezer load of fish along with a second freezer to hold it. Then there was the man who knocked on the front door and offered to paint his peeling front steps. That person used his tools and paint, was paid and stole all of the tools from Dad’s garage.
My neighbor’s wife died and he decided to continue to hire the caregiver who helped during the last months of his wife’s illness. He did not need the help, but he felt sorry for her because she told him she needed the work to pay her bills, so he hired her for two days a week. Later she was sad one day. He asked why and she said she was behind in her rent, so he hired her an additional day, that he did not need.
My client, Betty, was in her 70s and lived alone. Her grandson, George, had a drug habit and came over frequently, giving her a sad story of how he was short of money. When her son, Bruce, noticed $5,000 disappeared from her bank account in one month, he asked Betty where it went. She made up a story, because she was embarrassed to admit she gave it to George. The only way to stop this was for Bruce to be appointed by the court as Betty’s Guardian and Conservator.
Undue influence of elder persons is becoming an increasingly severe problem. Through fraud, duress, threat, intimidation, emotional manipulation, isolation and other techniques that foster helplessness and dependency, unscrupulous perpetrators cheat vulnerable older persons out of their life savings. This trend is increasing because those older than age 50 now control at least 70% of the nation’s household net worth. Wealthy, and even middle class, older persons have become frequent targets for criminals, including family members and care givers, who want to divest them of their assets.
Legally, the concept of undue influence, particularly when it occurs to the competent elderly, is a difficult issue. It should be suspected when significant others or caretakers develop trusting relationships that isolate the victim, foster a siege mentality, induce dependence, promote a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or powerlessness, and manipulate the elderly person’s fears or instill new fears and vulnerabilities.
We really are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and need to watch out for our seniors. Early intervention and reporting can prevent devastating emotional and financial losses for older persons who have worked their entire lives to become financially independent.
Exploitation of the Elderly: Undue Influence as a Form of Elder Abuse, by Ryan C. W. Hall, MD, Richard C. W. Hall, MC and Marcia J. Chapman. Clinical Geriatrics, Vol. 13(2), 28-36; 2005