By: Sanford R. Altman, Esq., retired

My favorite uncle had his daughter and her kids move back in with him a few months ago. On a recent visit, he confided to me that his daughter keeps demanding more and more money from him and he is afraid to say no. Is there anything I can do?

What you are describing is, plain and simple, elder abuse. There are two general categories of elder abuse – physical abuse and financial abuse. I have also observed that both types contain a strong component of psychological abuse which may be the most devastating of all.

Physical elder abuse covers a wide range of evils. Sadly, the most common perpetrator is the senior’s own adult child, although abuse by other caregivers, whether they be relatives or even paid providers, is not uncommon. Having represented both seniors and adult children of seniors, as well as having given training to caregivers, I am convinced that no one volunteers to undertake the care of an elderly relative with the intention of becoming physically abusive. Nonetheless, caring for the elderly can be a very stressful and all-consuming task, especially when dementia is involved. It is in such circumstances that abuse may occur, ranging from yelling to hitting to restraining to withholding food, medication and medical care.

While physical abuse is something that most of us will recognize when we see it, financial elder abuse may not be so obvious. It can be loans that are never paid back, misuse of credit cards or pressuring another to pay for things or to transfer property. Sometimes it is clearly illegal, other times it is borderline. It often starts small but can end up huge. Here’s an example: a client of mine had his daughter’s name placed on the deed to his home for elder law planning purposes. His daughter also held his Power of Attorney, although she was instructed to use it only if he became incapacitated. Years later, our client discovered that his daughter had used the Power of Attorney to take out a large home equity loan secured by his house and kept the cash. The mortgage company never bothered to play it safe and ask, “Why isn’t your father coming in?”

There are two reasons why elder abuse is so insidious. First, many, including seniors, often fail to recognize that what is happening is actually “abuse.” Second, most seniors do not want to admit that they are being abused by their close relatives and, if they do, are unwilling to report it. This is exactly what happened with our client who discovered his daughter had mortgaged his house. Though he was angry and hurt enough to follow our suggestion and speak to the proper authorities, he could not bear the thought of her going to jail and refrained from pressing charges.

How do we fight elder abuse? Most important is changes in attitude by the victim, the perpetrator and law enforcement. Regardless of circumstances, there is absolutely no excuse for a relative, friend, or anyone else to treat another person in this manner, especially those who are the most vulnerable.

Police departments and District Attorney’s offices are becoming more and more responsive to elder abuse. Your county’s Adult Protective Services is a great resource in this area. They will investigate your circumstances and even if the abuse does not rise to the level of being an actual crime, they will take whatever action is necessary to improve you situation. Phone numbers for Adult Protective Services (APS) are: Orange County (845) 291-2800; Sullivan County (845)292-0100, ext. 82429, then press 1; Ulster County (845)334-5125

There are also new federal laws to protect seniors which we will address in a later column.

If you are a caregiver having trouble coping, call your county’s Office for the Aging, which often runs caregiver support groups or can give you referrals. Do not wait until it’s too late and you do something that you will later regret.

Specifically as to financial elder abuse, many people seem to view the elderly as nothing more than easy prey. It is important to show them that they are wrong. These are some ways to prevent yourself from becoming the victim of financial elder abuse:

  1. If you have given anyone else access to your accounts, review the statements every month and make sure that they know that you will be doing it.
  2. If anyone else has the use of your credit card, make sure that it is one with a relatively low limit. Again, check your statements every month.
  3. If you are lending someone money, even if it is your child, have that person sign a promissory note. This may be difficult to ask for, but it will serve you well later. Failure to repay (generally followed by anger and estrangement) is the most frequent complaint I hear from my clients about their children. A simple dated paper with a promise to repay a certain amount by a certain date and signed by the borrower generally will suffice. If a large amount is involved, you may do well to consult an attorney.
  4. If you are bringing a stranger into your house as a caretaker, get personal references and checkthem.
  5. If you are making any arrangements with your children or anyone else where you are giving them money, signing over a deed, or giving anything else of value in return for a place to live (or any variations of such plans), get it in writing. This is the type of agreement which you would be well advised to have prepared by an attorney.
  6. Never, never, never co-sign a loan, even for your children, unless you are fully prepared to pay it all back yourself if they default. A lender is not required to seek payment from the primary borrower first. They will go directly after you if you are easier to collect from.

Hopefully, the above suggestions will help protect you from financial abuse. Don’t be afraid to use them if you have already been a victim of elder abuse – financial or physical. Do not hesitate to report it to the police or APS. If they tell you that it is a “civil matter” and suggest that you seek the help of an attorney, follow this suggestion. Whether before or after, taking action is the key to stopping elder abuse.