Stacey Wood, PhD

Stacey Wood, PhD

Stacey Wood, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Clinical Neuropsychologist at Scripps College in Claremont, CA.  Currently her lab is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice and the Borchard Foundation for Law and Aging. She is examining risk and protective factors of elder financial mistreatment. In this blog, Dr. Wood describes an actual case of elder abuse and points to social, cognitive and neural aspects of elder exploitation.

Molly Mae Jackson is an 80 year old African American woman who is widowed and has 2 adult children who live some distance from her. Ms. Jackson lives in her home with some assistance from members of her church. Ms. Jackson has some mobility issues and some difficulties with vision and no longer can drive. Her pastor has offered to take her to and from her church and assist her with bill paying. One day Ms. Jackson receives a notice that her home is in foreclosure. She is shocked as she has owned her home outright for years.

StaceyWoodCaseStudyImage

Please note: The individual pictured is not a victim.

She learns that she had signed a quit claim deed giving her home to her pastor who promptly sold it without her knowledge. Ms. Jackson signed a number of papers every month and was not able to read them. As her story came out it was revealed that the church’s pastor had taken over several other elderly widows’ homes, but that they had died prior to unearthing the deception.

This case example represents an actual elder abuse case that resulted in the Pastor being arrested and charged with grand theft. (Identifying information and case facts have been revised to protect confidentiality).

Older adults as a group are much more likely to be targeted by con artists in general because they are wealthier.  In addition, aging can bring with it changes that may be uniquely exploited. In my lab we have focused on three areas that seem to be important risk factors for elder financial abuse, (1) emotional regulation and wellbeing, (2) cognitive changes associated with aging, and (3) social isolation.

Elder Financial Exploitation can take many guises. It may involve a closely trusted family member or an international organized crime ring. In all of these cases, the predators take advantage of particular vulnerabilities that emerge in individuals as they age.

Don’t get me wrong though. Any person can be a victim of fraud. Younger adults are more likely to be “unbanked,” use alternative service providers and to pay higher credit card interest rates and fees. Individuals in midlife are more likely to be targeted for internet scams, investment scams, identity theft, and may be less attentive to erroneous charges and additional fees (slamming and cramming).

It is now well established that older adults enjoy better emotional regulation and subjective well-being than younger adults. Our work indicated that one potential reason for this finding is that brain activity to negative images decreased with age.  As such, older adults may not experience as much of an emotional reaction to potential red flags like risk. In our case example, Ms. Jackson was unaware of the risk she was taking by signing documents without being able to see them.

Older adults as a group experience cognitive decline in the areas of working memory and executive functioning. These abilities have been linked to financial skills and financial capacity. A related ability, numeracy, or literacy for numbers has been found to be important for financial decision making as well. Older adults as a group are lower in numeracy and then may have additional declines in cognitive abilities important for financial decision making. In essence, many can do the math, but less quickly and with less confidence. In our case above, Ms. Jackson cannot see well, but she also lacked confidence in her ability to manage her finances on her own.

The third area we have been studying in the lab is the role of social relationships and social isolation. In general, the literature has found that isolation increases risk. In our example above, Ms. Jackson is vulnerable to her Pastor because she is living alone and needs assistance.

In summary, the research suggests that the reasons older adults are vulnerable to fraud are multifaceted and include emotional regulation, cognitive changes, low levels of numeracy, and social dynamics. Interventions may also need to be developed in ways that are flexible around these different components for seniors.

7 Responses to Elder Financial Exploitation: Research to Inform Practice

  1. Chris Baker says:

    Hi Stacey, thank you for the great article. I am sorry to hear about this case. In my opinion, this is a prime example of where someone could/would benefit from “daily money management” services. Through my experiences the last 2 years in Atlanta, the only problem is that many people do not know this service exists. We are currently working on bringing more awareness to the community about our daily money management services in Atlanta. Do you many people know about daily money management in the NY area?

    • This article saddens and frightens me. As a daily money manager in the NYC tri-state area, many of my clients are seniors or the children of senior citizens. They hire me to really look out for them, handle their day-to-day finances and handle any correspondence. As the population of senior citizens continue to grow, the demand for the services of daily money managers will increase as well.

      • Cara Kenien says:

        Hi Sandra – thank you for your comments and your work in this area! You have raised really important points, thank you. Do you have a sense of Chris’s question (located in the blog comment right above yours) regarding many people knowing about daily money management in the NY area?

    • Cara Kenien says:

      Hi Chris – thanks so much for your comment. You have a great point regarding the important work of folks assisting older adults and others with daily money management. It sounds like you’re doing some great work to raise awareness of these types of services. Your question about many people in NY being aware of daily money management is a good one. Do you participate in any groups on LinkedIn? I think this is a great question that we could explore in that outlet. Let me know what you think. Have a great weekend! Cara – See more at: https://nyceac.org/elder-justice-dispatch-elder-financial-exploitation-research-to-inform-practice/#comment-2184

  2. […] Wood, PhD, Associate Professor and Clinical Neuropsychologist at Scripps College describes a case of elder abuse and points to social, cognitive and neural aspects of elder exploitation in a guest blog post for […]

  3. Rebecca Fetters says:

    It’s so interesting to know that this research is taking place and to see what you’re finding. I recently examined a large number of our Community Adult Protective Services reports and, while we certainly saw cases involving scams and frauds, we continued to see individuals being exploited by their friends and families. (http://www.oregon.gov/dhs/abuse/Documents/2012_OAAPI_Financial_Exploitation_Data_Book.pdf) I agree with many of the other comments regarding the value of money management programs as a least restrictive support for individuals who may be at risk of exploitation, regardless of who is exploiting them.

    • Cara Kenien says:

      Hi Rebecca – Thanks so much for sharing your insights! Also, thank you for sharing the link to the work you’ve done in this area. Do you participate in any LinkedIn groups? We participate in a few (I’d be happy to tell you which ones) and I am thinking you might share your report there too. Thoughts? Thank you again! Cara

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