It is estimated that by 2030, almost 25 percent of Americans will be 60 years of age or older. Elder financial exploitation harms the dignity, health and economic security of millions of Americans. Each year more than 12,000 Mainers are victims of elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation. Elder financial abuse is underrecognized, underreported and underprosecuted. It has not been extensively studied, nor is it well understood.
The oldest demographic, those 85 and older, are the fastest increasing population of seniors and have a 30 percent chance of dementia. Many seniors are dependent on others for help. Sometimes, those helpers exercise substantial influence over seniors. To gain compliance with their demands, perpetrators often use threats of withdrawal of love, care, medications, food and social interactions and threaten institutionalization.
By median age, Maine is the oldest state in the nation and has more 300,000 people age 60 years and older. It’s estimated about 38,000 people in Maine are affected with Alzheimer’s disease and that thousands more suffer from other forms of dementia. One of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is financial difficulty due to loss of abstract thinking. Now that Maine’s baby boomers are reaching the age of retirement, there is an increased risk for more instances of financial exploitation in the coming years.
A 2012 study found the annual financial loss by victims of elder financial abuse is estimated to be at least $2.9 billion dollars nationwide. This creates a burden for state and federal services as the victims’ diminished resources are no longer enough to provide for basic needs and standards of living. This is not only a problem for the victim; the problem falls on the shoulders of all Mainers.
Police investigations of financial exploitation are commonly ceased — often because the perpetrator can demonstrate, via a power of attorney, his or her name on a bank account or other legal document. Often the victim consented to the use of funds, even if doing so left the victim destitute.
LD 527, sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, proposes three modifications to the current statutes to better protect vulnerable adults.
The first modification is the addition of “dementia or other cognitive impairment” to protect people who are not able to adequately judge their situation and cannot give their consent.
The second modification states that consent cannot be given by “undue influence.” This is sometimes described as a deceptive means to control another person’s decision making. Examining undue influence could mean a more involved process of evaluating the true intentions of the vulnerable adult in the changing of their will, power of attorney, name on a joint account or the voluntary turnover of an asset.
Including the use of undue influence provides an increased incentive for law enforcement and prosecutors to pursue cases involving powers of attorney where the person is left destitute because of the misuse of their only assets by someone who had a right to use the assets.
When a power of attorney is misused in violation of the duty created, it is the same as theft. Currently, regardless of the amounts misused, the crime can only be a misdemeanor. This is where the last modification comes into play. The modification increases the penalty to a felony. If the value of the property is between $1,000 and $10,000, it becomes a Class C crime. If the value of the property is more than $10,000, it becomes a harsher Class B crime. This proposed bill would allow for the legal system to offer more punitive penalties to those who take advantage of our older, vulnerable adults.
Elder abuse in Maine is on the rise. Many seniors rely heavily on low incomes for their feeling of identity and independence. Taking a senior’s money creates a devastating loss. The term “financial violence” is more fitting to describe the horrific impact of financial exploitation. This bill creates the initial steps needed to enable prosecutors and law enforcement to better protect our seniors and vulnerable adults.
For these reasons, we encourage people to contact their legislators and urge them to pass LD 527, An Act to Protect Elders and Vulnerable Adults from Exploitation.
Tabitha Sagner of Old Town and Kelly Souder of Winterport are both Master of Social Work students at the University of Maine, set to graduate in May. They are also students in the Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education through the University of Maine Center on Aging.