May 3, 2007
‘Undue influence’ is dangerous form of elder abuse
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.
- Isolation from others. Telling the victim she was abandoned by her relatives and cutting off outside communication by telling visitors or callers that the senior does not want to see or talk to them.
- Building a siege mentality. Making the victim believe that enemies (including health care providers and family members) are lurking everywhere. They convince their victims that these "enemies" are going to take away their houses, pensions and Social Security, and that they are going to put them in nursing homes.
- Fostering dependency. They create the fiction that the influencer is the only trustworthy person and the only one who cares about the older person.
- Creating a sense of powerlessness. Slowly but surely, the influencer persuades the senior that only they have the power to do anything to help the elder.
- Making the senior fearful by exaggerating their illnesses and disabilities.
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:
- Psychopaths or sociopaths, who get wind of the money, resolve to go after it and have no conscience about committing financial abuse.
- Individuals with character defects whose greed is an overriding motivation.
- People who perceive themselves as entitled to the money. They feel that they deserve to have the elder's money or assets because their own lives have been fraught with hardship or because the older person wasn't as appreciative of them as they should be.
Family, neighbors, friends and professionals who come in contact with older people can help in the following ways:
- Check that the elder's health and nutritional needs are being taken care of. A perpetrator may try to weaken an elder's will by getting the senior to discontinue medications, neglect their health and eat poorly.
- Keep the elder socially involved. The best insurance is for the older person to stay connected to relatives and people who they have known for a long time. Senior centers and social service programs are also excellent resources.
- Provide the elder with information about undue influence and unscrupulous people who prey on senior citizens. Urge them to be careful.
- Advise anyone who has contact with seniors to be on the lookout for signs that someone is attempting to control the elderly person for their own gain.
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 email@example.com.