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Recognizing the Signs of Elder Abuse

Photo of author, Chelsea Clegg, CFP®.
Chelsea Clegg, CFP®
Associate Financial Strategist

In today’s world of rampant fraud, phone scams, and cyber attacks, it’s important to protect ourselves, and especially our most vulnerable population — senior citizens. The elderly are identified by the financial services industry as “vulnerable investors” because they may be subject to financial abuse and exploitation.

As family members and friends, we can play an important role in protecting our seniors by simply being more aware of their vulnerabilities and paying attention to signs of abuse. Remember, diminished capacity among the elderly isn’t just about memory loss, and elder abuse doesn’t always involve a stolen bank account. Listen and trust your inner voice if it’s telling you “something isn’t quite right here” and take action when necessary.

Whether it’s your parent, grandparent, neighbor or friend, here are four things to pay attention as it relates to seniors and their possible vulnerabilities:

  1. Unusual bank account activity. We generally think of unusual bank activity as a sudden spurt in new accounts being opened or increased spending, but the opposite can also be true. Are there no longer transactions for the grocery store? Is the water bill past due? These issues can signal a senior’s growing difficulty in managing his care and household. Is the senior not eating? Is he simply forgetting to pay his utility bills? For “housekeeping issues,” it’s important to assess the situation and determine a remedy that is helpful, yet not demeaning, for the senior. For example, is it time to consider a food delivery service or recurring grocery delivery to his home? If paying bills on time is a concern, arrange to have another responsible individual (adult family member or trusted caregiver) be added as an interested party on all accounts to monitor payments and financial situation.
  2. New, much younger friend or companion. It is not uncommon to see an elderly person become close friends with someone new, especially among widows/widowers. Sometimes, this new friend is much younger. Yes, having a companion is a good thing for a senior — they can watch after each other and enjoy activities and events together. But unfortunately, there have been too many situations where the new companion has used the senior for financial gain. It’s important to pay attention to these new relationships and be mindful for any “unusual financial activity.” Did your mother suddenly add her new companion’s name to her bank accounts? If this occurs, discuss your concerns with the senior in a respectful and non-accusatory tone. If you fear the senior is being exploited, talk to a legal expert about next steps.
  3. Increased subscriptions or purchases. Depending on one’s interests, an individual may subscribe to two or three different magazines. However, if you suddenly notice 10 different magazines on your elderly parent’s coffee table, there may be cause for concern. Scams seem to be at an all-time high, and new attempts to gain one’s personal financial information surface daily. While the National Do Not Call Registry (donotcall.gov) attempts to decrease telemarketers, some still get through. Social media is also filled with countless scams and fake accounts that prey on the elderly. The best thing you can do is educate yourself and discuss potential scams with elders. Remind them to never give out any personal information over the phone or via computer.
  4. Memory loss. Minor memory loss is often considered normal with an aging individual and generally isn’t cause for concern; but if the episodes get progressively worse, a physician may need to intervene. For instance, if you receive a call that your parent was on the way to the grocery store but got lost, this could signal a significant problem and should be evaluated. If you suspect increased memory loss, keep a log of the episodes and potential triggers as physicians may ask for specific examples. You don’t want an unscrupulous caretaker or a stranger to take advantage of your loved one in these frightening situations.

Navigating such situations and if/when they might lead to elder abuse can be challenging. While you want to monitor the seniors in your life to ensure they’re not being taken advantage of, you don’t want to overstep or come across as accusatory and risk irreparable damage to your relationship. Be mindful of the signs, encourage open dialogue, and intervene when necessary. Being aware and proactive will help protect the “vulnerable investor” in your life.


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