As many as 5 million older adults in the United States have been victims of elder abuse and neglect. In New York alone, out of the 3.1 million older adults over 60, as many as 130,000 may be victims of mistreatment.
Elder abuse takes many forms: physical battering, neglect by caregivers to provide for basic needs such as food or medicine, emotional or psychological mistreatment. One of the most insidious forms of abuse perpetrated against older adults is financial exploitation.
As in other forms of abuse, financial exploitation cuts across all economic and ethnic boundaries; it affects not only the affluent but also those of limited means. It is also the fastest growing form of elder abuse.
The National Elder Abuse Incidence Study in 1998 found that almost one-third of elder abuse cases involve exploitation. Frail elders who are isolated and dependent on others for care or who may be experiencing confusion are especially vulnerable.
In some cases unscrupulous home contractors or telemarketers take advantage of an elder's vulnerability to convince the victim to transfer funds.
In other cases, a financial adviser or family member entrusted with power of attorney takes advantage of an older adult's cognitive confusion to line their own pockets rather than use assets for the needs of the elder.
A major step toward prevention of financial exploitation of seniors would be the revision of laws in New York regulating power of attorney. POA is a useful legal tool that allows an individual to designate another party as fiduciary to manage funds and to transact business on his or her behalf.
The laws in New York, however, lag behind many other states in specifying the limits of authority of the fiduciary and in ensuring accountability and imposing penalties when trust is broken.
The New York State Law Revision Commission has been working on proposed revisions to the law for more than five years. Bills have been introduced in the Senate and the Assembly to finally make long overdue changes in the POA law in New York to help to protect elders from unscrupulous fiduciaries.
The New York State Elder Abuse Coalition was established in 2004 to implement recommendations that emerged from an Elder Abuse Summit held in Albany that year. One hundred specialists in elder protection voted to make revision of laws, especially the General Obligations law regulating power of attorney, the number one recommendation for improving the community's response to elder abuse in New York state.
On June 15, New York observed the second annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
There could be no better way for citizens to help protect older New Yorkers than to urge members of the Legislature to pass this critical piece of legislation this year.
Ann Marie Cook is co-chair of the New York State Elder Abuse Coalition.