Sooner or later, you get one of those phone calls that make your heart plunge into the pit of your stomach.
It happened to me 12 years ago, and I still feel my stomach tighten when I think about it. I was putting groceries away after my usual Saturday morning shopping trip when the phone rang. It was the branch manager of a bank about five miles away – the branch where my 91-year-old great-aunt was a customer.
“You need to call the police and you need to come over here right now,” the manager said. “Your aunt was here – and she wasn’t alone.”
My great-aunt had been showing increasing signs of dementia over the preceding two years. She was still living alone in her house but I was exercising my power-of-attorney duties more and more during that time. I had taken away her car keys nearly two years earlier following an incident in which she became lost behind the wheel and almost ended up in the next state. Now she was in danger again – and it was financial danger this time.
We discovered that my aunt – who was a retired bookkeeper and always kept meticulous records of her personal finances – had been writing checks in the thousands of dollars to someone whose name I did not recognize. After I had taken her checkbook away from her and notified the bank about this, the mysterious man showed up at her house one more time and drove her to the bank, where he persuaded her to withdraw a few thousand more dollars from her account. All told, my great-aunt lost more than $25,000 to this man, who we found was asking for payment to perform home improvement tasks that never were started.
But my great-aunt lost more than just her money. She lost her independence and she gave up the home she had loved for more than 50 years as a result. Within a week of the bank incident, I placed her in assisted living because it was the only way we could ensure her safety.
I have come to learn that my great-aunt was not alone in being a victim of financial exploitation. An Allianz Life study, “Safeguarding Our Seniors,” found that the problem is rampant and getting worse. In 2014, the study found that 20 percent of those surveyed knew an elder who was a victim of financial abuse. Two years later, the study found that 37 percent of those caring for a senior said that the elder they care for has experienced financial exploitation and loss.
Respondents noted the average financial loss to victims was $36,000, 20 percent higher than estimated in the 2014 study, with nearly half of respondents saying the effect on the elder victim to be "major loss" or "financial ruin."
The impact of financial abuse goes beyond dollars and cents. The Allianz Life study revealed that the victims of such exploitation experience a range of emotional issues, as well as isolation from others, as a result of the crime committed against them.
For those who plan to visit elderly family members over the holiday season, this is a good opportunity to look for signs that they may be victims or potential victims of financial abuse. If you have elderly clients, or clients who look after elderly family members, it’s also a good time to help prevent this type of thing from happening.
My great-aunt’s story had a somewhat happy ending, despite her having to flee her home. The police found the culprit, he was charged and went through the criminal justice system, and we recovered nearly all her money. That money ended up paying for her long-term care – care she might not have required had she been safe in her own home.
Susan Rupe is managing editor for InsuranceNewsNet. She formerly served as communications director for an insurance agents' association and was an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor. Contact her at Susan.Rupe@innfeedback.com.
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