2010 saw the passing of the Elder Justice Act (EJA), the most comprehensive federal elder abuse law in U.S. history. We know from earlier studies that roughly 11 to15% of people ages 60 and older face some form of elder abuse each year. Experts agree this number is under-reporting and the scope of the problem is larger than we realize. According to a 2008 study by the Metlife Mature Market Institute et al., the perpetrators of elder financial abuse are typically not strangers. They are often businesses, service providers, family and friends who have gained the trust of the older adult. Here are some interesting findings:

  • The victims of elder financial abuse are losing a combined total of $2.9 billion dollars annually.
  • Women are twice as likely to be victims of financial abuse as men. Most of these women are age 80-89, living alone, and requiring some help in the home or with their health care.
  • Nearly 60% of the perpetrator were men, mostly aged 30-59.
  • The amount of money stolen by family or friends increased during the holidays.

Recently the researchers at MetLife updated these numbers, discovering that elder financial abuse cases have risen 12% since 2008. Though instances are increasing, data suggests that only one out of 43.9 financial exploitation cases are reported. Unfortunately the newly passed EJA can do nothing without the support of Congress and the President. Currently the Act only provides Congress with the authority to spend up to $777 million over the next four years on elder abuse. To actually see the money used, however, a separate bill must be passed by Congress and signed by the President.

Until this can get sorted out, and the EJA can strengthen existing adult protective services (APS), here are ways the report says you can watch out for yourself:

  • Stay Alert – Don’t leave valuable items, cash, or checkbooks out in the open. Don’t be left out of decisions about your finances. Don’t sign anything without reading first and having someone you trust review it. If you are a concerned family member, be sure to ask periodically about the elder’s financial situation and keep an eye out for changes in their behavior (i.e. sudden worry about money) and any other sudden financial changes or unusual expenses.
  • Stay Organized – Keep track of possessions, mail, and checking and savings account balances. Know who is calling and use an answering machine or caller ID to screen calls. Know who is asking for personal information and why (never provide this over the phone!)
  • Stay Informed – Know where to go if you suspect abuse (your local APS, the police, or get help from bank employees). Talk to an attorney and keep track of your will, future caregiving arrangements and power of attorney.
  • Report Abuse – Anyone (e.g. elder, family member, physician, bank teller, etc.) suspecting elder abuse should be reporting it to the local APS. Reports can be made confidentially and reporters are protected from civil and criminal liability. It is always better to err on the side of caution.

The Elder Justice Act comes almost 40 years after the passage of the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Act. Congress, and the general public, see the value in protecting vulnerable children from abuse and today we spend upward of $7 billion to help this effort. Surely vulnerable older adults deserve the same protection.

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