Stealing from the old

Actor and elder abuse victim/advocate Mickey Rooney gives a testimony before a Senate Special Committee on Aging titled "Ending Neglect Financial Elder Abuse" in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Kai Ryssdal: Here's kind of an amazing number from a study they did in New York not too long ago: More than 140,000 elderly have had serious money or other real assets taken from them without their permission. And that's in New York state alone. In all too many cases, it's not a con man but a family member who's to blame for a kind of elder abuse that goes seriously under-reported.

Here's Marketplace's David Brancaccio.


David Brancaccio: Liz Loewy is ruthless when it comes to rooting out elder abuse, be it physical or financial. She has, for starters, no tolerance for jerks who can’t wait for the inheritance.

Liz Loewy: Is it really a crime? And the answer is: Is that parent dead yet? If the answer is no, then it's still a crime.

Loewy’s a prosecutor in Manhattan. This afternoon, she’s at a podium. She’s addressing the Meals On Wheels folks who deliver food to the elderly in New York. She wants them to be on the lookout for fishy stuff -- like lots of ATM withdrawals slips when the cardholder doesn’t get out much. Loewy lists a single day’s worth of suspicious withdrawals -- $460, $360, then $200.

Loewy: All on the 15th.

Then the next day...

Loewy: $200, $200, $400... red flag.

She has stories about some other crazy red flags she’s seen. Victoria’s Secret lingerie bills for size 16 when the elderly person weighs 80lbs.

Loewy: Call it in, we can look into it. Thank you very much for listening.

But it gets more confounding.

Loewy: I'm here to tell you that many of our cases involve kids or grandkids or other relatives.

We all run into them. The relative who makes a fuss about their sacrifices for old mom who then uses mom’s checkbook without asking. Experts also say keep an eye on the ones who go around with 50,000 watt senses of entitlement. Or listen to this real gem of a sister.

Loewy: One elderly victim who went into the hospital with kidney failure and asked her younger sister to just pay her rent when she was in the hospital.

She signed a Power of Attorney, a document turning control of her finances over to the sister.

Loewy: P.S. The elderly victim got out of the hospital and her personal belongings were out of her apartment and basically all of her funds had been depleted by her younger sister who gambled the money away at a casino in Atlantic City.

For each case of major financial abuse that comes in, 43 go unreported according to a big survey in New York state. Who wants to call the cops on their own kids, plus many victims feel trapped as in so many spousal abuse cases.

Dr. Mark Lachs, head of Geriatrics at New York Presbyterian is author of “Treat Me, Not My Age,” and worked on that elder abuse study.

Mark Lachs: The stereotype of the older person being dependent on the child for financial resources, it's exactly the opposite. The data shows us that in fact it’s the kind of failure-to-launch adult child who is the most common perpetrator.

In the spring, Lachs shared his research results with lawmakers in Washington. Also testifying, a legendary actor.

Lachs: I had the honor of being upstaged by Mickey Rooney at a Senate hearing before the Aging Committee. Mickey Rooney, the recent victim of financial exploitation by step children, got up there and the place was riveted.

Mickey Rooney: My money was taken, misused. What finances I had. When I asked for information I was told it was none of my business!

Mickey Rooney, now 91, is suing a stepson whose lawyers have repeatedly denied their client ever acted improperly. Lachs says in his practice he sees elder financial abuse down through the income levels.

Lachs: For the middle class, someone with a $200,000 nest egg, once that is in fact absconded with, you're done. And we all pay for that, David. When one becomes impoverished, one becomes a Medicaid recipient, a ward of the state.

Given these costs for all of us, what’s being done? While, some states make it a crime not to report signs of elder abuse, few get punished and Lachs says those laws need teeth. Liz Loewy, the prosecutor, is big on telephone hotlines to gather elder abuse tips. In Washington, a federal effort to crack down on elder abuse was made law back in 2010, but is stuck in limbo. For two years now, Congress has denied the funding to put this Elder Justice Act into action.

In New York, I’m David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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