Fool me once, shame on... who? Financial exploitation among older adults

by Julie Miller

Three words that never apply to AgeLab research: apolitical, unemotional, and impersonal. Financial exploitation of older adults is no exception. Over the past several years, through a series of gut-wrenching personal experiences and equally intense professional ones, this topic has been at times on a low simmer in my brain and at others bubbling over.

Existing research has explored underlying causes and conditions related to the financial exploitation of older adults. The pandemic and its shadow, social isolation, have put more older adults in isolated and vulnerable positions. And the number of adults who suffer from cognitive impairment is growing along with the aging population, a trend that does not bode well given that cognitive impairment is one of the main risk factors for financial exploitation.

Over the past year, we have engaged several stakeholder groups – older adults in the MIT AgeLab 85+ Lifestyle Leaders Panel, advisory professionals in the Preparing for Longevity Advisory Network (PLAN) panel, as well as social workers and aging service professionals – in conversations about financial exploitation.

Through each of the stories we’ve heard, it has become clearer that the topic of financial exploitation is extremely political, incredibly emotional, and entirely complicated. Lifestyle Leaders have shared stories with us of realizing just moments too late that they have divulged private financial information about themselves not to trustworthy professionals but instead to scammers; financial advisors have shared stories of clients who have been tricked into having up to $250,000 depleted from their accounts, by strangers and known actors (e.g., children, caregivers, roommates, and neighbors) alike; social workers and aging service professionals have shared stories of older adults who have been financially drained and then dropped at hospitals. In each case, there has been an undercurrent of helplessness, shame, rage, exasperation, resignation, or some combination thereof.

In response to these cases, we’ve heard about interventions such as closing compromised accounts, referrals within companies and organizations (e.g., fraud or compliance departments), and referrals to outside organizations (e.g., Adult Protect Services, law enforcement offices, state attorney general’s office).

But more often than not, these situations have not had a happy ending. Assets have rarely been recouped, relationships have not always been repaired, and victims’ trust in themselves and others has been broken. As with so many other challenges one can face in this life, it is just not fair.

This is a topic that seems to be outsmarting and outsizing the programs and policies currently designed to address it. Public, private, and non-profit industries all clearly have a stake in this issue and are working within the bounds of their industries to protect older adults from experiencing financial exploitation. The question for me is: How can we leverage multi-sector partnerships to eradicate financial exploitation of older adults?

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About the Author

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Julie Miller

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