In November of 2013, Elmo and his wife, Meliitta, approached their neighbors, Sandra Bittler and her husband Michael Leland, about purchasing a 2 acre lot that bordered their two properties. Elmo, age 86, was delighted by the idea that the land his sons had made their wilderness playground could brighten the days of another set of children. However, he was not expecting to be swindled by his neighbors. Without an independent broker to ensure a fair price, the Marquettes sold the lot for a mere $22,000, a fraction of the actual value of the land. The couple’s plight became not only a headline, but also a clear case of one of the major dangers facing the elderly, financial abuse.*
Elder abuse is an all too real problem for many. As a recent Reuters article, plainly entitled “Elder abuse may be more common than people think,” describes, today’s aging population is increasingly in danger. The Reuters report indicates that 1 in 10 lucid older adults have experienced abuse in North and South America, with the numbers rising to over 50% for those with dementia.
Elder abuse can range from psychological, sexual and physical abuse to financial abuse. Such abuse towards the elderly can cause them to suffer psychological disorders as well as physical illness and premature mortality. The increased medical costs, caused by the elder abuse places a heavy burden on our healthcare system. The gradual aging of the baby boom population in this country exacerbates this problem. According to the Oregonian, as of 2013 about half a million Oregonians are over 65 or disabled, contributing to the rise of financial abuse in Oregon by 33% between 2009 and 2012, however, records concerning physical abuse are not readily available. Unfortunately, a lot of elder abuse goes unreported as many of the elderly fear retaliation. In the case of financial abuse elderly people are often unaware of theft or embezzlement of their money and property.
Fortunately, increased education and knowledge of elder abuse has led to a rise in reporting rates. Additionally, many professions, such as doctors, police officers and the clergy, are required by Oregon law to report elder abuse if they see it. Several new occupations, including attorneys, were added last January when House Bill 2205 took effect, further increasing the chance that abuse will be reported. Some Oregon banks are also distributing kits to its workers in the hope of increasing detection of financial abuse.
What is the best way to prevent such abuse? First, planning ahead while elderly family or friends are lucid, particularly in terms of finances, can help prevent abuse. It is almost impossible to predict if or when you or a loved one may be subject to abuse, but you can limit the damage. However, as most elder abuse is perpetrated by a family member or close friend, maintaining contact with a wide support network of friends and family is important in limiting abuse. These simple steps can offer some security as old age approaches, even if they cannot prevent abuse or rectify the damage after the fact.
With support from their family, friends, a lawyer and a slew of headlines at the Oregonian, in 2014, Elmo and Meliitta got their land back. But the Marquettes were lucky. Without these support networks, they could have very easily succumbed to shame or gotten bogged down in legal and bureaucratic processes, leaving the land in their neighbors’ hands and themselves victims. “How old is too old?” the exasperated Leland asked the Oregonian. The answer is unclear, but as the population ages it is increasingly a question that must be asked.
*Story featured in a series of articles in the Oregonian by Steve Duin