Preventing financial exploitation of seniors a difficult but necessary discussion

Published: Saturday, Dec. 1 2012 4:50 p.m. MST

Talking to aging parents about how they might best protect themselves against financial exploitation takes a deft touch, advocates say.

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SALT LAKE CITY --- No question, talking to aging parents about how they might best protect themselves against financial exploitation takes a deft touch, advocates say.

But the conversations are necessary considering that seniors are vulnerable to financial exploitation when they are no longer able to manage their own finances. Most turn to loved ones for help.

Sometimes that trust is misplaced, said Jilenne Gunther, legal services director for the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services. Most often, perpetrators of financial exploitation are people closest to the senior — family members, specifically children.

"This is the ultimate crime of betrayal," said Gunther, author of the 2010 study "The Utah Cost of Financial Exploitation."

"To raise this family and to love this family and then at the end of your life to be betrayed like this, it's the ultimate Judas experience," she said.

State and national advocates for aging Americans are urging family members to devote time during holiday family gatherings to discuss these issues and come up with a proactive approach to help aging family members protect their assets from fraud. 

"We strongly encourage Utah families to take some time to learn about the warning signs so that they can ask the right questions and take the right precautions to ensure that the finances of older adult family members are safe," said David Fast, state Adult Protective Services investigator.

Gunther said seniors can take steps to help safeguard their financial resources, many of which are accounting practices that businesses use, such as limiting access to bank accounts, insisting on a third-party monitor for payment of financial transactions, and using limited power of attorney agreements.

These steps create more transparency in how a senior's resources are being used, which should be reassuring to all family members. 

Having a system in place helps to stave off problems and ensure that an aging parent has the full benefit of the resources they have accumulated over a lifetime, Gunther said.

"It's a very difficult conversation to have with family members, especially when no one raises their kids to think they're going to be a perpetrator. No one thinks their kid is going to go to the dark side," she said.

But financial exploitation of seniors is a ugly reality, Gunther said. Up to $1 million a day is stolen from Utah seniors, or $85,253 per victim, the study showed.

Nan Mendenhall, Adult Protective Services director for the state, said some family members who are also caregivers may rationalize that spending their elder relatives' money — whether using their credit cards or withdrawing money from bank accounts — is OK because they are paying themselves for providing care and the elder relative would eventually leave it to them as inheritance.

Because many people who require caregiving and assistance with their financial matters are socially isolated, such crimes often go unchecked.

"They might find, 'Wow, that was easy. I'm going to take a little bit more.' Next thing you know, the account has been drained, and you're in a lot of trouble," Mendenhall said.

Some perpetrators of financial exploitation tell frail relatives that unless they hand over their assets, they will place the parent, grandparent or other relatives in a nursing home.

"Mom and Dad give them money, the car, the deed to house, whatever to please that person," Mendenhall said.

When a senior's resources are depleted, taxpayers are on the hook to provide for their care.

Gunther's 2010 study of 80 reported and supported cases of financial exploitation in Utah estimated that Medicaid costs for the affected seniors would be $884,464.

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