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Financial Elder Abuse: What You Need To Know

Financial Elder Abuse: What You Need To Know

By Stacy Yanchuk Oleksy

Elder abuse is one of those really uncomfortable topics to talk about.

It’s not something we talk about with our friends over coffee or on the golf course. In fact, most of us hope that our loved ones are safe from abuse as much as we hope that we will be when we become elderly. 

It’s important to recognize when talking about elder abuse, exactly what it is.

Elder abuse can include inflicting physical, emotional, psychological, sexual and also financial harm. The abuse can be from a stranger, a family member, a friend or neighbour or a trusted professional. Elder abuse can create tremendous harm and trauma for the victim, impacting them for the rest of their life. 

The World Health Organization reported that 1 in 6 older people experienced some form of abuse in the past year and that 6.8% were affected by financial abuse. They also shared that that the ability to gather this type of data is limited so these numbers may in fact be actually under reported.

When it comes to financial elder abuse, the CDC defines this as;

“the illegal, unauthorized, or improper use of an older individual’s resources by a caregiver or other person in a trusting relationship, for the benefit of someone other than the older individual. This includes depriving an older person of rightful access to, information about, or use of, personal benefits, resources, belongings, or assets. Examples include forgery, misuse or theft of money or possessions; use of coercion or deception to surrender finances or property; or improper use of guardianship or power of attorney.”

So what signs do you need to be aware of and what should you do if you suspect someone you know is being abused?

Financial elder/senior abuse is about taking advantage of someone and their finances. The perpetrator can be a stranger (website, scam, telephone call, etc.) or it can be a friend or family member. Some examples can include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • A financial planner promises your grandparent that if they invest with them, they will be guaranteed a return of 20% 
  • A grandchild continuously “borrows” money from a grandparent and never pays them back 
  • A telemarketer calls your elderly uncle and tells him he’s won a free trip to an exotic location, but he first needs to give his credit card number to pay for the taxes 
  • Your neighbour found a dating website and she’s “talking” with someone, who professes their love and wants to be together but first they have to clear up some financial issues and they need help 
  • Your brother convinces your elderly parent to change their estate plan and grant him Power of Attorney and he wipes your parent’s account clean 
  • Your parent co-signs or guarantees a loan under duress from another family member 

The examples could go on for pages. 

However sometimes it’s not obvious that it is abuse – your elderly family member or friend may not disclose their story to you.

They may not know they’re being taken advantage of; they may be embarrassed and ashamed; they may have been threatened by the abuser; they may be worried that they won’t be believed; they may believe that disclosing the abuse means it will break up the family and they don’t wish to be responsible for this; and/or they may not have the capacity to communicate the abuse. 

Financial elder/senior abuse can be subtle or obvious. Some signs to look out for include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • A sudden drop in the standard of living of the senior family member – this may be because they are giving or loaning money to someone and don’t have enough to keep up with their own expenses 
  • A new caregiver, friend or love interest – the senior family members can feel lonely and may appreciate the company and attention, but it costs them money, outside of the normal costs of a relationship (paying for caregiving services, coffee with a friend, a dinner date) 
  • A joint account with the senior family member that is being drained 
  • Money is missing and/or credit cards are being used for things the senior family member would not purchase 
  • The senior family member’s belongings are missing 
  • The senior family member ’s will is changed suddenly and/or Power of Attorney is handed over to someone 
  • Care for the senior family member goes down, but the cost remains or care is not provided by the “caregiver” 
  • Money is borrowed, but never paid back, over and over again 
  • The senior family member becomes more isolated, keeping the secret of the abuser 

If any of these experiences resonate with you and you feel as though you are being taken advantage of or being abused, you can: 

  • Talk to someone you trust 
  • Trust your instincts – if something doesn’t feel right, talk to a reliable source before giving money 
  • Say no to family borrowing money even if they threaten to cut off contact – if your relationship comes with financial strings, it’s abuse 
  • Talk with a lawyer 
  • Consider talking to the police 

If you suspect an elderly family member or friend is being abused financially: 

  • Talk to your senior family member with compassion – tell them that you are worried about their well-being and you want to help them 
  • Listen to their story, their feelings as well as what they want 
  • Talk with an expert, who can help (financial institution, lawyer, police) 
  • Create a plan to prevent this from happening in the future 

Elder/senior financial abuse is a frightening and growing issue.

Our elderly family members cared for us when we were young and vulnerable, and we must in return, provide a safe environment, free of financial abuse.

For more information, here are some available resources;

In Canada: The Canadian Centre for Elder Law by calling 604-822-0242, by email at ccels@bcli.org, or by visiting their website. There is also a useful resource for Canadians by province or territory on the Government of Canada’s website.

In the US: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has some tools and resources to help protect older adults from fraud and financial exploitation. As well, the National Center on Elder Abuse provides a State Directory for support.

Stacy Yanchuk Oleksy is the Director of Education and Community Awareness at the Credit Counselling Society. She has a Master’s degree in Family Ecology, is a professional Coach and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance. She has presented at various conferences and has served on expert panels at University of British Columbia and Carleton University. She has published articles in Canadian Living, Vanier Institute for the Family, My Money Coach and Amik, and has been interviewed by CBC Radio, Global National, and the Toronto Star. Stacy has co-written two workbooks – Making Cent$ of Money and Money Management Basics – and has developed personal finance curriculum for various workshops and webinars. Stacy serves on a national financial education committee.

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