May 3, 2007
‘Undue influence’ is dangerous form of elder abuse
A woman in her 70s has a sizable estate acquired from a lifetime of hard work and smart investments. Lonely and overly trusting, she falls prey to a much younger man who persuades her to sign over her assets to him.
A frail widower hires an attractive housekeeper to help him with various household tasks. She eventually sweet talks him into giving her large gifts of money to pay for nursing school, clear her debts and pay for her mother's operation.
The elders in these scenarios do not have dementia. Most courts would find them competent. How then are they bamboozled into losing what has taken a lifetime to accumulate? These examples of financial abuse (a form of elder abuse) occurred because of an insidious process called undue influence.
The perpetrators use various techniques and manipulations to gain power and compliance, exploiting the trust, dependency and fear of older adults. Over time, the perpetrators gain control over the decision making of their unwitting victims.
Anyone can be unduly influenced, including the stressed, ill, sleep deprived, lonely or frightened of any age, but the elderly are particularly at risk because of failing health, isolation and a tendency to trust. Margaret Singer, an expert on cults, brainwashing and persuasion, pinpointed several factors that perpetrators commonly use to groom potential victims.
Who Are the Perpetrators?
Unfortunately, individuals who prey on vulnerable seniors are often the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. They may appear to be warm, sympathetic and selfless friends, caregivers and even family members, but they are not. Their numbers include:
Family, neighbors, friends and professionals who come in contact with older people can help in the following ways:
Should you suspect that an elder is a victim of undue influence, as soon as possible put every detail and all dates down in writing. States vary on abuse reporting requirements and procedures. However, each state has a service designated to receive and investigate allegations of elder abuse. The Eldercare Locator is a federal agency that will provide a referral to the proper agency for the area that the elder lives in.
Reporting suspicions of financial abuse via undue influence to the appropriate authority will begin an investigation and may prevent financial ruin or at least bring a halt to the elder's suffering.
For more information, call (800) 677-1116 or visit www.eldercare.gov
Dr. Rachelle Zukerman is professor emeritus of social welfare at UCLA, a gerontologist and author of the book, "Eldercare for Dummies." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.