$36 Billion Piggy Bank

Richard Cordray, Director of Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, called elder financial exploitation the “crime of the 21st century.”

Approximately 36.9% of seniors are affected by financial abuse in a given five-year period. According to The True Link Report on Elder Financial Abuse 2015, $36.48 billion a year is lost by victims of elder financial abuse — more than twelve times what was previously reported. $6.7 billion is stolen through Trust Abuse, when friends, family, or paid helpers take advantage.

The accumulated wealth of older adults makes them targets for financial abuse and the exploitation targets seniors at all income levels. Women are twice as likely to be victims as men. Most are between the age of 80 and 89, and are living alone, trying to maintain their independence.

The true cost is even higher for the senior. Financial abuse frequently results in reduced emotional and physical health. It’s estimated that 954,000 seniors are currently skipping meals as a result of financial abuse. Many suffered depression, anxiety, or loss of independence. The stress is unbearable, and my aunt and my family have experienced this first-hand.

In a 2015 Hearing before the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, Kathleen Quinn, Executive Director of the National Adult Protective Services Association, called elder financial abuse “rampant, largely invisible, expensive and lethal.” Abused seniors are three times more likely to die and elder abuse victims are four times more likely to go into a nursing home.

The baby boom generation is reaching retirement age at a rate of 10,000 people per day. Those 65+ will make up 20% of the population by 2050.

Given demographic trends, elder financial abuse is expected to grow dramatically. The 2015 White House Conference on Aging has made “elder justice” one of its four tracks. There is now a federal home for Adult Protective Services (APS) and a new Elder Justice website called a “one-stop shopping site for victims, families, prosecutors, researchers and practitioners.” On June 20, 2016, the Senate passed a resolution cosponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa designating June 15 as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

This can happen to anyone. In 2011, actor Mickey Rooney testified in a Congressional hearing about abuse and financial exploitation committed by his own family members. He said, “I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated.” He had a powerful message for other older adults experiencing abuse: “You’re not alone … and you have nothing—nothing, ladies and gentlemen—to be ashamed of.”

The case regarding media magnate, Sumner Redstone, is another example. Questions have been raised about his mental competence in relation to financial exploitation and the issue of undue influence by his daughter. Probably the most famous case of financial elder abuse is that of one-time New York socialite Brooke Astor when she was more than 100 years old. Her grandson Philip Marshall testified against his father and helped put him in jail. In his 2015 Senate testimony, Marshall said, “To be complacent about elder justice is to be complicit in elder abuse.”

Sunny Florida has a dark underside with rampant and systemic Elder Guardianship abuse called “Liquidate, Isolate, Medicate.”

Population growth is Florida’s primary engine of growth. The state’s older population age 60 and up, is expected to account for most of Florida’s population growth in the next 15 years, representing 56.9 percent of the gains according to Florida Legislative Office of Economic and Demographic Research. Between 2010 and 2040, Florida’s older population is expected to almost double. The 75-79, 80-84, and 85+ age groups will more than double over this time horizon.

Amy Baker, chief economist for the Florida state legislature, said, “You can almost think of the savings and the retirement assets they are bringing from other states as a helicopter drop into our economy. We think that’s going to add significantly to Florida’s economy between now and at least the early 2020s.”

However, seniors should be prepared to crash and burn if they come up against the Florida Elder Guardianship process. Barbara Peters Smith explains it clearly in Elder guardianship: A well-oiled machine, “Anyone can file a petition to determine an elder’s incapacity, which is how the legal process begins… According to Florida statutes, after a three-person examining committee — usually a psychiatrist or medical doctor, a nurse and a social worker — visits the elder and completes a report, the next step is to petition for an emergency temporary guardianship.”

This entire process can happen within days. Yet, once you are caught in the web, it is very hard to get untangled. Most agree that plenary guardianship should be the last resort, but in so many cases — like my aunt’s — the examiners simply check all of the boxes stripping away fourteen rights such as the right to vote, to travel, to manage finances, to accept medical care and to determine where to live. The guardian then has control over a ward’s property, finances, medical decisions, housing and social relationships. In other words, the guardian can “Liquidate, Isolate, Medicate”– liquidate your assets, prevent you from seeing your family, and put you in a nursing home to die. This is cruel and unusual punishment.

Financial exploitation is illegal in the state of Florida. Florida’s exploitation law (FSS 825.103) states “if the funds, assets or property involved in the exploitation of the elderly person or disabled adult is valued at $50,000 or more, the offender commits a felony of the first degree. If the damage is valued at $10,000 or more, but less than $50,000, the offender is charged with a second-degree felony, and a third degree felony occurs if the value is less than $10,000.” Why doesn’t Florida prosecute financial predators within the Elder Guardianship system with this law?

Just as we continue to make strides with child abuse and domestic violence, we need to shine a brighter light on elder abuse — particularly this type of financial exploitation by the Elder Guardianship system. Be sure to read the Huffington Post article, “Is Elder Guardianship a New Form of Human Trafficking?

In the meantime, Lillie is still in the fight. Please find out how you can help #FreeLillie. Follow us and retweet @elderdignitynow. If you have specific suggestions, email elderdignity@hotmail.com.

Contributed by Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy—Harvard Business School-trained strategist, World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, Human Potential Advocate/Coach, and President of Power Living Enterprises, Inc. Her latest award-winning book—co-authored with her mother Columbia University-trained journalist Janie Sykes-Kennedy—is Dancing Light: The Spiritual Side of Being Through the Eyes of a Modern Yoga Master on her teacher/mentor 99-year-old yoga master Tao Porchon-Lynch.