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.
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.