Friday, July 17, 2009

Financial Elder Abuse: Hot Off the Presses

I’ve worked with Pam Teaster, Professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and president of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA), on a couple of research projects over the years and have always been impressed by her readiness to design studies that answer questions practitioners most want the answers to. It’s not easy to translate practice wisdom or professionals’ hunches into conceptual frameworks and designs that pass scientific muster. Which is why practice-based studies often end up employing such dubious sounding methods as “convenience” and “snowball” samples. Still, they yield insights that are enormously helpful to the field.

Pam’s recently released study on financial exploitation breaks new ground methods-wise and sheds light on how financial abuse is being addressed by the media around the country. Broken Trust: Elders, Family and Finances was a collaboration of NCPEA, Virginia Polytech, and the MetLife Mature Market Institute, the research branch of the insurance company. Pam and her colleague Karen Roberto analyzed financial abuse cases identified through the electronic clipping service operated by the National Association of Adult Protective Services for the Administration on Aging’s National Center on Elder Abuse. The service draws from Google and Yahoo scans of billions of Web pages a day. The search yielded 266 articles on financial abuse that were posted between April and June of 2008. From these, they collected information about victims and perpetrators, their relationships, victims’ losses, and case outcomes. They also reviewed the academic and trade literature on financial abuse and listed promising practices drawn from a database run by NCEA.

I was a little surprised to see “Medicare/Medicaid fraud” among the forms of abuse that were included since the term typically refers to situations where it’s the “system” that’s ripped off, not program beneficiaries. Like many in the field, I worry about defining elder abuse so broadly that the term becomes meaningless, and I’m always on the lookout for types of abuse that we can exclude. But the example cited in the report, of a physician who performed unnecessary surgeries on 865 elders and charged Medicare or Medicaid over $11 million for them, was certainly compelling. Although it might be argued that it was the system that suffered the financial loss, there’s no denying the trauma and suffering that the patients must have endured. Professionals and courts alike are struggling with the question of whether or not physical abuse, neglect, or other mistreatment, when committed for profit, also constitutes financial abuse. Other forms of financial abuse mentioned in the study include telemarketing fraud, repair and contracting scams, "sweetheart scams," fraudulent advice from insurance salespeople and stockbrokers, abuse of powers of attorney and guardianship, identity theft, and Internet "phishing."

Among the findings that are already being widely cited is the estimate that elder financial abuse costs older Americans at least $2.6 billion a year. The figure was derived by annualizing the total losses reported during the 3-month study period ($400 million) and assuming that the losses in the 40% of cases where no dollar figure was provided were comparable. I found it interesting that the largest single category of abusers was trusted professionals, which includes attorneys and fiduciaries, who accounted for 18% of the cases. They were followed respectively by family members (17%), non-agency caregivers (11%), and agency caregivers (9%). Also of interest was that almost 2/3 of the victims (65%) were women.

I asked Pam what, if anything, she found surprising. She cited the severity and impact of the abuse. “One victim likened the exploitation to being raped. I can easily see it. It would follow that the health effects and the very ability of a person to even address the effects due to diminished resources would be equally devastating.”

She also noted victims’ diversity. “While there are typologies of victims, and we tied to make one, there is enough variance to indicate that healthy and frail alike--can fall prey to exploitation.”

MetLife’s Mature Market Institute, which is directed by Sandy Timmerman, spearheads research, national partnerships, and educational materials for “those in, approaching, or caring for those in the mature market.” The full study is available on the Institute’s website at 

For more on elder financial abuse, including identity theft against elders, undue influence, and mass marketing fraud, visit my Web site at