Elder financial exploitation runs rampant throughout the U.S. and is most commonly perpetrated by an elder’s own family members, according to a research team with local ties. It can happen in any family, though most people erroneously assume it could never happen in theirs.
In an effort to be more proactive about this epidemic, some leaders from across Laramie, Albany County and the state are gathering this week for an informal and public discussion to educate the public about the risk factors associated with the crime and ways to mitigate their effect.
Virginia Vincenti, University of Wyoming professor of human development and family studies, is currently researching the topic of elder financial exploitation and organized the event.
“If people become aware of what could be a risk factor, they could pay attention where they normally would (not),” Vincenti said.
“We’re trying to raise the consciousness of people to think more deeply about their family dynamics and the individuals in the family system and how they interact and how they exchange resources.”
The event brings together representatives from the Wyoming Department of Health, county and city law enforcement, AARP, the Wyoming Bankers Association, Eppson Center for Seniors, Laramie Care Center and Spring Wind Assisted Living.
“I’m hoping that because we have all these professionals representing different entities that have some connection with this issue that we might decide toward the end of the meeting, ‘Where do we go from here?’ ‘How can we collaborate better in the future?’” Vincenti said.
Kelly Davis, an elder law attorney from Cheyenne, will also attend, as well as representation from the Adult Protective Services division of Wyoming’s Department of Family Services.
Adult Protective Services is an especially important component of any discussion because it is the agency responsible for investigating such incidents, Vincenti said. Throughout the course of her research, she encountered many families and victims of financial abuse who were unaware of this resource.
“They didn’t even know about it,” Vincenti said. “They didn’t even know that Adult Protective Services existed or that it was a place to get help.”
Vincenti is working with a multistate interdisciplinary research team — composed of both academics and non-academics — to assess risk factors associated with elder financial exploitation. Though there are many ways in which this kind of exploitation can occur, the team is limiting its research to the most common source of financial elder fraud: using power of attorney.
A son, daughter or in-law given power of attorney is allowed to manage an elder’s finances once the elder is no longer fit to make their own financial decisions. A person holding power of attorney has significant power. They manage an elder’s investments and real estate, as well as spend money on the elder’s behalf.
A person with this power is given wide discretion because it is often difficult for investigators to prove how an elder would or would not have spent their money if they were able. Someone acting with power of attorney is further shielded from scrutiny given privacy standards — both legal and social — pertaining to finances.
Vincenti’s research group is trying to figure out what family dynamics tend to precede elder financial exploitation and what family dynamics tend to safeguard a family from such exploitation.
To do this, the researchers are interviewing people from families in which a relative was appointed power of attorney and an elder subsequently experienced financial exploitation. They are also interviewing people from families in which a relative was appointed power of attorney and no exploitation occurred.
“We are still trying to recruit participants for that study and we want participants who have allegedly had exploitation by a family member with power of attorney,” Vincenti said. “But also, we now want people who have had that same situation, but everything went smoothly, so that we can then ask them a lot of questions about their family before that dependency period.”
By identifying which family dynamics tend to precede this financial abuse, Vincenti said she and her colleagues hope to arm the public with the information they need to avoid such a fate.
The most important way to prevent such abuse in one’s own family is open dialogue, she said. With everything out on the table, families can better prepare themselves for an uncertain future.
“I think any adult really ought to be informed about this because families ought to have conversations openly about what elders in their family want and what they don’t want,” Vincenti said.
This is why Vincenti said she encourages adults of all ages to attend the event Thursday.
“I’m hoping young people will come — young adults,” she said. “We’ve had grandchildren who have participated in our study, seeing what has gone on in their family. This isn’t just for middle-aged and older people; the whole family needs to have discussions about this and young adults should be part of it and know what’s going on.”
Financial elder fraud is a widespread and underreported problem in the U.S. — so much so, in fact, experts do not know how common the phenomenon really is.
Some 33 of the 70 incidents reported to the state’s Adult Protective Services in 2016 included exploitation allegations.
And a 2016 National Elder Abuse Incidence Study found that in 1996, 21,427 incidents of elder financial abuse were reported to Adult Protective Services agencies across the U.S.
But this same study estimated just one in 10 — and maybe as few as one in 44 — cases were reported.
Vincenti said the problem is likely to grow as the Baby Boomer generation increases the percentage of Americans who are 65 and older.
Because of embarrassment, denial or inability on the part of the defrauded — and because of the difficulty or cost of investigating and prosecuting elder financial fraud — it is especially important to be proactive, said members of the research group.
Presentations and discussion will start 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ on the corner of Sixth and Garfield streets. The event is free. Call Vincenti at 766-4079 for more information.