The other day I came across an article entitled, “Financial Exploitation: When Taking Money Amounts to Elder Abuse.” In the article, an elderly woman named Mary described how her daughter had cruelly stolen her life savings while she was in the hospital. Mary was deeply hurt by this betrayal, and the trust she had had in her daughter was ruined. At the same time, however, she was also worried about her daughter. She allowed her daughter to remain in her house, explaining, “I do have unconditional love for her. She has nowhere to go. She has no income- — she would be homeless.”
While Mary’s reaction may seem surprising, it is actually not unusual in cases of elder financial abuse. This is largely because this type of abuse is so often perpetrated by family members. In fact, a 2014 study found that “family members [are] the most common perpetrators of financial exploitation of older adults (FEOA) (57.9%), followed by friends and neighbors (16.9%).” When an elder is financially exploited by their son or daughter, their response is unlikely to fit the stereotypical abuse narrative. It is more complex.
We rarely get calls from elders who name their family member as a “perpetrator” or “abuser.” Instead, we get calls from elders who are concerned about both their own financial situation and also their family member’s welfare. In one case that I recently handled, an elder’s housing was threatened because of her adult son’s use of drugs in her apartment. While this is not a traditional financial abuse case, the son’s actions put his mother’s stable, subsidized housing at risk and if she had ended up evicted, she could have faced extreme financial hardship. When I met with her, I found that she recognized that her son’s behavior was problematic. But when she talked about spending time with him and her grandson, her eyes lit up and her tone was warm. She knew that her son’s behavior had been harmful to her and she was genuinely worried about her own situation, but she was also worried about his.
Elders exploited by their family members also tend to seek recourse beyond punishment of the perpetrator. For example, in another case that I recently handled, a son had stolen nearly $100,000 from his mother after she gave him access to her bank account so that he could help her pay her bills. In speaking with the elder, I found that she certainly wanted her money back, but she was most hurt by her son’s duplicity. He had shown her care and attention prior to stealing her money, and the realization that he had merely been priming her stung more than the lost funds. It felt like what she wanted most of all was a call from her son, apologizing.
Why is it that so many elders respond to familial financial abuse in these ways? One reason is obvious. It is very difficult to cut ties with, much less bring charges against, one’s own son or daughter, niece or nephew. If an elder has raised their family member from childhood, they may feel some responsibility for that family member’s actions. Moreover, they may love them. It is a real challenge to reconcile that a person who one loves has been deceitful.
Additionally, in some cases, the financial exploiter is the elder’s only caretaker or companion. Many elders (particularly recent immigrants) are socially and physically isolated, and they may feel they have no choice but to put up with some level of financial exploitation in order to have someone to help them prepare food, manage their medications, or just talk with them. Isolated elders are more likely to be preyed upon in the first place, and after abuse has occurred, they may be more inclined to maintain a relationship with the perpetrator.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the perpetrators of elder financial abuse often have root problems stemming from drug addiction and/or mental illness. If an adult child is stealing from his father in order to feed a heroin addiction, the father’s first concern may be helping his son to overcome the addiction, and he may put his own needs second. He might write off the abuse as a symptom of the larger addiction issue.
Given the complexities of elder financial abuse, it is important to understand why elders might not accept assistance or might want their situation handled in a unique manner. These elders should still be offered services to help improve matters, even if they aren’t the services typically provided in abuse cases. Listening to elders, even when their requests differ from what we expect them to be, is the essence of true elder justice.
 Michael O. Schroeder, “Financial Exploitation: When Taking Money Amounts to Elder Abuse,” http://newamericamedia.org/2017/03/financial-exploitation-when-taking-money-amounts-to-elder-abuse.php.
 Peterson, J., Burnes, D., Caccamise, P., Mason, A., Henderson, C., Wells, M., & Lachs, M. (2014). Financial exploitation of older adults: a population-based prevalence study. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 29(12), 1615–23. doi: 10.1007/s11606-014-2946-2.