In a recent issue of Public Policy and Aging Report devoted to the topic of financial elder abuse, a team of researchers examine the potential of a new model for detecting and intervening in cases of financial elder abuse. They suggest that their model has considerable potential for training individuals in aging services to detect and prevent this type of abuse.
Although research on financial elder abuse is limited, available literature suggests that it is the most common or second most common form of elder abuse. Such abuse can come in a variety of forms, including deliberately not spending assets to protect an inheritance, deliberately spending for personal benefit, and opportunistically taking financial advantage in the spur of the moment, as well as abuse as a result of neglect or incompetence. As for the impact of financial elder abuse, it is not merely economic; it can also leave older adults humiliated, depressed, or even suicidal.
The “professional bystander model” proposed by these researchers is a decision-making model with five steps. The first step is noticing the cues to financial abuse. This involves being attentive for signs of potential indicators of financial abuse, either from direct observation or from reports by others such as family members. These cues could include changes in living situations, unexplained shortages of money, misplaced financial documents, and unexplained changes to wills or other financial documents. Step two involves construing a situation as financial abuse based on the available cues and evidence. Interestingly, these researchers found that in judgments of financial elder abuse, financial professionals’ judgments were more influenced by financial details of a potential abuse case, while those in health and social care were more attentive to the mental capacities of the potential victim. Step three is deciding whether the situation is a personal responsibility. This is less of an issue in the United States and Canada, where reporting abuse is a mandated responsibility, but this is not the case in other countries. However, this is changing, and a number of professional codes of conduct are being revised to provide greater protection to vulnerable populations.
Step four involves knowing how to deal with a situation of financial elder abuse. Social care, health, and financial professionals have all reported difficulties related to not knowing how to appropriately respond to financial elder abuse instances, including dealing with victims and with their potential abusers. These professionals reported a need for guidance and training on how to appropriately respond in such situations. Step five is deciding to intervene. In some cases, professionals reported that they faced barriers to acting that complicated decisions to intervene. For financial professionals, one such barrier was laws protecting the privacy of financial data. This decision is also complicated by difficulties working with other agencies, each of which may not be able to share information needed to support a case of financial abuse. All professional groups surveyed about financial elder abuse reported a need for more collaborative interagency cooperation in such cases.
Although many factors complicate the reporting and prosecution of financial elder abuse, the researchers note that available evidence “suggests that when in doubt, many professionals play it safe, and take action to intervene.” They also note that social care professionals were more likely to take stronger actions than health or financial professionals.
In conclusion, the researchers note that “at any one of the five stages of our professional bystander intervention model, decisions could be made that prevent financial abuse coming to the attention of those in a position to intervene.” This would suggest a need for training, education, and policies that encourage and facilitate greater attention to and likelihood of acting upon potential instances of financial elder abuse. In addition, policy needs to address the barriers reported to that negatively impact the detection or successful prosecution of financial elder abuse.
Gilhooly MM, Dalley G, Gilhooly KJ, et al. Financial Elder Abuse Through the Lens of the Bystander Intervention Model. Public Policy Aging Report (2016); 26(1): 5–11.