May is “Older Americans Month”, a month that recognizes the contributions made by our seniors. This celebration was first established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy as a way to spotlight the fact that there were few social programs in place to meet the need of seniors at that time. It was estimated that nearly one-third of seniors in the early 1960s were living in poverty. By the 1970s, thanks in part to the annual event, senior providers began to see an uptick in elder abuse cases, particularly financial abuse.
“Abuse of any type against a senior is horrendous, but there is no form of abuse that occurs at a higher rate against our elderly than financial exploitation,” states certified elder law attorney RJ Connelly III. “Consider this, those over fifty are the fastest-growing demographic in our country, and this group controls over 70 percent of this nation's wealth. With the move towards aging in place now more of a focus than ever as a result of the pandemic and our society’s increased reliance on technology to do everything from banking to medical appointments online, seniors have become prime targets for this type of abuse.”
So just what is elder financial abuse?
“It’s a crime that separates older adults from the resources they worked a lifetime to save and secure, potentially threatening their independence,” Connelly said. “Elder financial abuse can take many forms from telemarketing scams to the undue influence to pressure an older individual to give up control of his or her assets. And the fact of the matter is, this abuse overwhelmingly occurs in a domestic setting, not an institutional one, and is usually perpetrated by family members.”
Let’s look at just such a case.
Claire, a retired school teacher in Connecticut, lived with her daughter and son-in-law, Marcy and Raymond, for nearly two decades. She didn't need caretakers, rather it was Claire who helped her daughter from becoming homeless as a result of a drug addiction and invited the couple to live in her house rent-free in exchange for doing basic maintenance and everyday chores. Claire also had outside contractors in place to take care of her lawn and a handyman to take care of larger jobs in the house.
As for Marcy and Raymond, both floated from job to job, usually lasting only a few months in one location. More often than not, it was Marcy who usually lasted longer in the workplace than Raymond, but Claire felt that things would get better the longer Marcy stayed clean and sober.
One afternoon, Claire was making her way down the front stairs when her legs gave out. She tumbled forward, breaking her ankle and her arm. While in the hospital, she was told that a stint in rehab would be the most appropriate thing for her but she refused, stating that she had help at home.
As Claire recovered, Marcy and Raymond had convinced her to allow the couple access to her bank account so bills could be paid on time and Claire could "focus on getting better." Marcy soon quit her job at the local convenience store and Raymond gave up his most recent job as a painter to "help mom more around the house." Both let go of the handyman and the lawncare service, convincing Claire that they could save her money by doing so.
Raymond then persuaded Claire to make him her power of attorney, taking over all of her finances. This was followed by all the locks on the doors being changed, a new phone number was put into place and all mail being sent to a post office box. Other family members became concerned when they were unable to contact Claire.
Her niece, who received a monthly check from Claire for college, stopped getting them. Neighbors began to notice that the lawn was overgrown, the house fell into disrepair and became an eyesore. Even more alarming, Claire had not been seen for months.
Family members called the local police department and asked for a wellness check. Upon arriving at the house, Raymond answered the door and they noticed that the inside of the home was unsanitary and used needles littered the floor. When demanding to see Claire, police found her confused, thin, in extreme pain, and wearing soiled clothing.
Raymond and Marcy had cleaned out her bank account, changed beneficiaries on her other financial documents, transferred ownership of the vehicles to their name, and had been taking her pain medications.
Claire was immediately taken to the hospital where she did eventually recover, telling social workers that she was "too embarrassed" to seek help after getting herself into “such a mess”. Raymond and Marcy were both arrested and faced elder abuse charges. Afterward, Claire told her friends that such things “don’t happen to normal people. I was a school teacher for almost forty years, I really feel stupid.”
"It's my experience that victims of elder financial abuse cite similar reasons for why the abuse grew out of control," Connelly stated. "Reasons I have heard include being afraid of not being believed, fear of bringing shame to the family, feeling it was their fault the abuse was happening, and the biggest reason, fearing being removed from their home and being placed in institutional care."
And like Claire, there is also a belief that these things don’t happen to “normal people”, that somehow being a victim makes them less than others. But the sad reality is that any senior can be a victim of a predator -- even celebrities, who are surrounded by agents, friends, and an adoring public, have become victims of abuse. Let’s look at some celebrities that fell victim to financial exploitation.
The popular host of one of the longest-running radio programs, American Top 40, became the topic of elder abuse shortly before his death in 2014.
According to Kasem’s adult children, his “new” wife kept their father separated from the family for years before his death. News reports stated that his wife moved him to Washington State and kept his whereabouts unknown from others. After Kasem was eventually located in Washington, police reported that he was suffering from bedsores, and power of attorney was eventually given to his daughter.
A court hearing was scheduled but Kasem died within a month of the hearing. His wife then claimed the body within 72 hours and listed an address in Israel, essentially blocking his daughter from any claim to the remains and he was eventually cremated and buried in an unmarked grave in Norway.
The children eventually sued the stepmother, citing her for wrongful death and the widow filed a petition that would grant her even more authority over her deceased husband's estate.
The story here is stereotypical. According to Rooney, he was the victim of abuse by his own step-children. Eventually, he was granted court protection from his stepson Chris Aber and his stepdaughter Christina Aber after charging them with verbal, emotional, and financial abuse, and for denying him such necessities as food and medicine.
The court documents stated that both stepchildren kept Rooney a “prisoner in his own home” through intimidation and harassment. Chris was also alleged to have taken control over Rooney’s finances, blocking his access to the mail and forcing the elder actor into public appearances against his will.
The court document requested protection not only for the aging actor but for his current wife Jan and his stepson Mark Rooney, who lived in the family home. In the complaint, Rooney stated that he feared the Aber’s would try to harm or kidnap him after the case had been filed.
"All I want to do is live a peaceful life, to regain my life and be happy," Rooney wrote in a statement to his fans. "I pray to God each day to protect us, help us endure, and guide those other senior citizens who are also suffering." Rooney died in 2014.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Famed rock n roller, Jerry Lee Lewis, claimed his own daughter was his abuser, stating that she gave him drug cocktails and isolated him in a moldy house. In legal filings, he stated that his daughter Pheobe took advantage of him while she managed his career from 2000 to 2012, and schemed to spend his fortune with her husband, Ezekiel Loftin. He says she gave him a "heavy cocktail of psychotropic drugs" to keep him under her control.
Lewis said that he was forced to go on grueling tours despite his poor health and when he wasn't on the road, she kept him cooped up at home in moldy conditions that were so bad he had to wear an oxygen mask.
Court papers also said that her husband, Loftin, spent at least $5 million of Lewis’ money on luxury cars, real estate, and plastic surgery. Lewis said he sued to get his money back. Lewis died in 2017.
Anna Nicole Smith
After marrying Texas millionaire J. Howard Marshall, Anna Nicole Smith became a household name when Marshall died less than a year after the marriage. According to bank statements, Smith received over $8 million in gifts during that time. His family called her a gold-digger and accused her of financial exploitation of an elder but charges were never pursued.
After Marshall died, Smith took his family to court after she did not receive a part of his inheritance. The case remained in the state and federal courts for fifteen years and survived even after Smith's death. Anna Nicole Smith died in 2007 from a drug overdose.
This story is not about a celebrity being the victim of abuse but about being the abuser.
Former NFL running back, Michael Bennett, has been charged with forgery, elder abuse, grand theft, and burglary. He was recently arrested and booked on a $1 million bail for allegedly taking out more than $300,000 worth of fraudulent loans in his girlfriend's parents' name, according to a story in the Argus Courier, a Petaluma, California newspaper.
Bennett, who played in the NFL for 10 years, had been under investigation for a lengthy period of time before his arrest. According to reports, his girlfriend's parents, both over 65, became suspicious when they began receiving mail referencing loans they didn't take out.
Police stated that Bennett had stolen a binder of financial documents from the elderly couple which he used to secure the loans. He had also forged their signatures and the signature of a notary public. Before this arrest, Bennett had been convicted of wire fraud in 2012 after he lied on a loan application to obtain $200,000. He was on parole for that conviction at the time of his most recent arrest.
Although a minor celebrity but an extremely wealthy socialite, Brooke Astor became the victim of elder exploitation by her son, Antony Marshall. According to the Associated Press, Marshall was convicted of defrauding his mother and stealing millions of dollars from her $200 million fortune as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
In this case, the jury found that Ms. Astor’s son and an attorney had gained the lady’s trust and confidence as her mental state declined. They caused her will to be changed, making millions of dollars in lifetime transfers of her fortune for Mr. Marshall’s benefit. Astor died in 2007.
Are there ways to predict who may be a potential abuser? There may be some telltale signs that a caretaker may exhibit, and these traits are present whether it be a family member or an outsider from a home health agency, according to Attorney Connelly.
“The traits that we tend to see with abusers may only be known if it is a family member that will become a caretaker,” said Connelly. “Unfortunately, those hired through agencies or want ads may not exhibit these behaviors until they become comfortable in the position, but in any case, the behavior of anyone in the caretaking role needs to be supervised regularly and any worrisome signs must be addressed.”
These behaviors include:
Someone who comes from a family or a relationship where abuse is condoned and tolerated. They have learned that violence and intimidation is the way to solve problems and get what they want.
A person who provides services to a senior over and above expectations, often spending time during off-hours with them. Although it may seem like a loving relationship, resentment grows over time if their contributions go without recognition. This could result in the person resorting to violence or other forms of abuse to get what they think they deserve. Regular supervision and providing the person with time off or a respite can help keep this from happening.
Someone going through personal stressors. Relationship issues, addiction problems, and mental health concerns can also be a breeding ground for a person to act out against a senior.
People who tend to use coercion and intimidation to gain power and control are also potential abusers.
"Watching the interactions between the caretaker and the senior can give a major clue as to where that relationship stands. If the senior is speaking openly and then suddenly shuts down when the caretaker arrives, this is definitely a red flag," said Connelly. Other issues include the caretaker being overprotective, not being totally transparent in sharing financial or medical information with family members or limiting open communications between the senior and family and friends.
“In the celebrity cases we cited, it proves something extremely important -- elder abuse can happen to seniors of any race, gender, ethnicity, education, cultural or economic background,” Connelly pointed out. “The only things that those who are victims of financial abuse have in common is that they potentially have something that someone wants to exploit -- and in these cases, it's money and assets.”