The old diner was a good place to sit at a table by the window and watch people. Theresa liked to watch people, too. She watched George and Annie get old.
Carol Celeste writes a syndicated column on eldercare. She is an editor, teacher and caregiver advocate. She also is a daughter -- George and Annie's. She says that the elderly can be "easy and irresistible targets for the unscrupulous."
Muggers prey on the weak, the easily distracted, and the confused. Bogus charities make solicitous-sounding phone calls. Sleazy contractors ring doorbells and offer to "help." Even professionals will sell them services they don't need.
"Financial abusers can also be familiar and trusted people," says Celeste. "Equally unscrupulous, they'll seek and seize any opportunity for financial gain."
One day, Celeste found a rambling message from her dad on her answering machine. He was unhappy. He didn't want to see her again. He didn't want her to contact him. He told her to get lost. That part of the message was easy to understand, but almost impossible to comprehend.
"Having a parent turn on you for no reason is painful and shocking, especially when you thought you had a good relationship," she says. "You feel as if you've been somehow set up. You'd received loving treatment for decades, in order to increase the pain of abandonment later in life."
Suspecting that one or both of your parents are under the control of someone else -- who might put them in danger -- adds a new dimension to the pain. In Celeste's case, danger came from a trusted source: Theresa, the familiar waitress at the coffee shop.
Initially, Theresa approached Celeste about her dad, saying he had seemed down when he came by the restaurant. Celeste knew that her dad had been feeling isolated, particularly as her mom became less cognizant. After Annie entered assisted-living, Theresa stopped by to see George and brought him a meal. Soon she was visiting frequently and staying longer. She called Celeste every day to discuss his well being, often asking for her advice.
Theresa promised Celeste that she would watch for changes in George's health or in the handling of his affairs. Theresa seemed so sincere, and for that Celeste was grateful. She admits that she didn't see the warning signs -- and that, in fact, she was so grateful at first that she was "snowed."
What followed was more like an avalanche.
The calls just stopped one day. Coincidentally, it was the day Theresa's name went on the deed to George's home.
Celeste still doesn't know how much of her dad's assets have been legally turned over to Theresa. Celeste does know that Theresa writes her father's checks, prepares his taxes, and handles all of his financial matters. George admits having papers signed by Annie, knowing she lacked capacity. When Celeste asks her dad what will happen to her mom if he dies first, he says he doesn't know. She says that some elders expect to die soon and aren't concerned about those left behind. They become self-absorbed, and that alone "opens the door to financial predators."
Willie Mae Simms is the information and referral specialist for the Council on Aging in New Orleans. She says that since Hurricane Katrina, the reported cases of financial exploitation have increased tremendously, with seniors getting bilked by contractors ranking among the most common forms of elder exploitation.
One report by the National Center on Elder Care says seniors may be targeted first because they have more assets. Anne Heard, a licensed clinical social worker, says many seniors also feel a greater urgency to rebuild. They are daunted by a sense of wasting precious time, and predisposed to suspend disbelief and reason. "Never underestimate the power of denial," Heard says.
Simms advises her clients to have any binding agreement checked by a lawyer, if possible. She also warns seniors about divulging financial information to strangers, and she encourages them to monitor their banking and credit card activity.
"Those who do not have any family and who show signs of cognitive impairment are the most vulnerable," says Simms.
The council also reminds everyone to watch out for anyone taking special interest in an elder, especially if they were not interested in him or her before. Simms, like Celeste, says to keep in mind that a financial predator can be anyone, including a family member or a close friend.
Edward J. Carnot has practiced law for more than 30 years. He didn't worry much about his widowed father Ben, aside from the usual concerns that any adult child has for an elderly parent. Although Ben lived 3,000 miles away from his son, he had adequate financial resources and was under the care his longtime, trusted caregiver, Gracie. A chance phone call to their stockbroker "shattered this tidy picture," Carnot says. He learned that Ben had instructed his stockbroker to liquidate all his assets and have a check made payable to cash. He said he'd come by and pick it up later.
That was the first in a series of revelations. Gracie had been systematically "looting his assets and neglecting his physical care," Carnot says. When he confronted his dad with a year's worth of cancelled checks, proving the extent of Gracie's dishonesty, Carnot was shocked by his father's response -- Ben said he would take care of it; he didn't want his son getting involved. Worst of all, he didn't want to do anything to hurt Gracie.
Deep in denial, feeling loyal to his caregiver and fearing she'd leave him, Carnot's father did nothing.
Celeste says many victims protect their abusers. Sometimes elders are too embarrassed or ashamed to admit they have been duped. Worse, many become dependent on the perpetrators and are terrified to lose them -- even after learning the truth.
Carnot notes that losing a spouse triggers tremendous feelings of loneliness in many elders. Caretakers often stay with their charges day and night, developing a close bond with them. The two almost inevitably share intimate details of their lives.
Before long, seniors bond closely with their caregivers. They feel protected. Victims make decisions about their finances and their future in what they perceive as a caring relationship. Carnot says some become so emotionally dependent they think they're "falling in love." As a result, they are afraid if they don't comply with the caregiver's demands, their companion will abandon them. Elderly victims are often willing to give -- or give up -- whatever the abuser wants.
Carnot and Celeste agree that financial manipulators are great psychologists. "They can read elders," says Celeste. "They know how to cater to their egos." She adds they are also great "spinners" of elder thinking.
"If a loving child calls every day, that child is snooping," says Carnot. "If the child doesn't call every day that child doesn't love them." Celeste says abusers "lobby for and receive the trust you deserve, and you become the target of a parent's irrational actions."
Carnot says that financial abusers instinctively understand and exploit a "bunker mentality." Vigilant and sinister, they stick close to the elder when children visit. Once "detected," they become more calculating -- and more brazen. Celeste says that identifying and undoing fiscal misdeeds can lead to extreme hardship, and sometimes financial disaster -- for the whole family.
With the singular goal of protecting their father, Carnot and his sister "began a whirlwind of desperate maneuvering." They found themselves "up against a legal system that was not only unsympathetic, but even seemed to work against us."
"Although physical abuse is fairly easy to detect and is clearly addressed by laws already in place, financial exploitation is more insidious," Carnot says. "It is not as visible. And sometimes the victims are complicit in the stripping of their assets. "Unless the victim agrees to testify against the caregiver, in the eyes of the law, no crime has been committed."
Celeste found that public agencies don't always share an adult child's assessment of the situation. Sadly, adult children also comprise a significant portion of financial exploiters -- and agencies are therefore suspicious of their motives. "My dad admitted having my mom unknowingly relinquish assets, but that did not stir even the police to investigate," Celeste says. "Adult Protective Services also referred the case to police, still with no results."
Moreover, elders who have not been declared incompetent by a court have the right to self-determination. "That means they can give away all their belongings and live on a park bench, if they know what it means to do that," Celeste says, adding, "Having a parent declared incompetent is hard to do. It's hard to make the move, and it's hard to prove."
Celeste is now the author of When the Old Block Chips: A Survival Guide for Adult Children of Estranged and Difficult Aging Parents. In her book, she shares everything she has learned about parental care giving, including the potential for chaos.
New Orleans attorney Michael Duplantier has worked in the field of elder law for more than 20 years. He says that financial abuse often goes unreported and thus many cases are still "flying under the radar." Some forms of financial exploitation nowadays are more sophisticated, Duplantier says, noting that oftentimes the abuse is planned, purposeful, and calculated.
"These are not just stories of the pilfering housekeeper anymore," Duplantier says. The National Center on Elder Care's "Financial Exploitation of the Elderly" reports not only an increase in financial exploitation of elders but also, as technology advances, that perpetrators are keeping ahead of law enforcement by becoming more creative.
Duplantier says he sees few judicial competency proceedings, known as interdictions, these days. Such proceedings can be used to protect seniors, but also to take advantage of them. At interdiction hearings, he says, the issue is the ability of the allegedly infirm individual to "consistently make reasoned decisions regarding the care of his person and property, or to communicate those decisions."
When it comes to the question of competence, physicians are sometimes "hesitant to get involved," Duplantier says, adding that such hesitancy might be due in part to the absence of a social and emotional relationship between patient and physician. "In an era of specialization and HMOs, we are no longer a society of the family doctor."
Some families find legal ways -- short of going to court -- to address the financial and personal security of elders. One oft-used tool is the power-of-attorney. According to Duplantier, a power-of-attorney is a legal document in which someone gives another person legal authority to act on his or her behalf, either for a specified purpose or for general purposes. The authority granted can be as narrow as letting someone sign closing documents at a property sale or as broad as authorizing someone to manage another's financial and personal affairs at all levels.
Duplantier cautions that when a perpetrator is part of the family, "a grant of a power-of-attorney can itself give rise to unintended consequences of abusive situations and relationships."
Carnot says research shows that between one and two million Americans over the age of 65 are injured, exploited or otherwise mistreated by someone they depend upon for their care and protection. Research shows that "only one of 14 cases of elder abuse is reported to authorities." Carnot says that nearly half of today's 76 million Baby Boomers are struggling with elderly parent health-care issues.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently reported that more than 30 percent of known cases of elder abuse included financial or material exploitation. Material exploitation includes emotional manipulation that sometimes leads to physical abuse and neglect.
Anne Heard, a social worker, looks more clinically at those who exploit others, concluding that many suffer from an antisocial personality disorder. She describes them as individuals who display impulsive behavior, indifference to others' rights and feelings, and disregard for social norms. They experience only a limited range of emotions, she says, and they lack both empathy and remorse. They will repeat unlawful behavior, knowing it could lead to their arrest. That may be why, even after exposure, Gracie backed up a van to Carnot's father's home, unloosed her sons, and hoped to make off with anything that wasn't nailed down.
Carnot chronicles his ordeal in his book, Is Your Parent In Good Hands? Protecting Your Aging Parent From Financial Abuse and Neglect. His story includes techniques for protecting the elderly and identifies resources available to assist adult children. The book also discusses how to select a caregiver, the importance of the family meeting, and how to protect your parent from deceitful salespeople. Carnot says everyone should get involved in efforts to change state and federal laws to protect seniors -- and ultimately all of us -- from abuse by financial predators.
Possible Signs of Elder Financial Abuse
• Sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives or new "close friends"
• Isolation from family or friends (the first thing predators do)
• Caregiver appears vigilant whenever you visit
• Unexplained withdrawal of large sums of money from a bank account
• Repeated withdrawals of money from the bank account, with the elder always accompanied by someone
• Additional unexplained names on an elder's bank signature card
• Disappearance of funds or valuable possessions
• Substandard care despite adequate finances
• Better care received than is affordable
• Purchase of unneeded goods or services
• Recent or frequently changed will
• Vagueness or animosity if questioned