How widespread is elder financial exploitation? Estimates vary greatly, with studies over the past dozen years reckoning that anywhere from 3.5 percent to 20 percent of older adults have been financially abused, according to a review of research published in the journal Clinical Gerontologist.
But there’s one aspect of financial exploitation upon which researchers and experts in the field agree: The problem is vastly undercounted, because most cases are never brought to authorities’ attention. One oft-cited study by researchers in New York state estimated that only 1 in 44 incidents of elder financial abuse there were reported to Adult Protective Services.
“It’s almost unanswerable how much it’s underreported,” says Laura Mosqueda, M.D., a professor of geriatrics and family medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and director of the National Center on Elder Abuse.
A key reason lies in the nature of elder financial exploitation, broadly defined as the improper use of an older person’s money or property by someone they know, such as a hired caregiver, a legal or financial professional, or, most often, a family member. Abuses can range from theft of household items to misuse of credit cards to large-scale fraud involving property and financial accounts.
Why abuse goes unreported
Experts say some victims don’t report financial abuse because they don’t realize or acknowledge it’s happening. This could be due to cognitive impairments, which can diminish an older person’s financial skills and make it easier for an abuser to gain control of their money, or to reluctance to believe a close relative or trusted friend isn’t acting in their best interest.
Financial as well as personal relationships can blur lines. Families have their own cultures when it comes to things like loans, providing help in tough times, or exchanging care for freebies such as room and board or use of a car, says Marti DeLiema, a gerontologist and assistant research professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.
“The thinking [behind not reporting] may be, I’m not going to rock the boat. I don’t want to deal with the repercussions,” she says.