Mickey Rooney was once one of the most critically acclaimed actors in Hollywood. An Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe winner, Rooney is known for his roles in blockbusters like Breakfast at Tiffany's, National Velvet and more recently, Night at the Museum. At 90+ years of age, Rooney should be enjoying his golden years surrounded by loving family members. Instead, he says he has become a prisoner in his own home thanks to physical, emotional and financial abuse from his stepson. Last year, Rooney spoke out about his situation, eventually winning a court order that turned his affairs over to an attorney and out of the hands of his abuser.
Rooney admitted in an interview with The Washington Times that he suffered in silence for years because he did not have the courage to ask for help. Sadly, Rooney isn't alone. In 2007, Statistics Canada reported that seven percent of older adults have reported some form of emotional or financial abuse by an adult child, spouse or caregiver. In most cases, the offender is a family member. If that wasn't sad enough, experts believe the rate of unreported incidents is significantly higher.
As the baby boomers age, experts are anticipating the worst, bracing for an epidemic of elder exploitation. Since financial abuse is the most difficult to recognize, it's important for elderly women and men to pay close attention to how their money is being handled.
Understanding financial abuse
Financial abuse is defined as the illegal or unauthorized use of someone else's money or property. It's important to note that this includes pressuring someone to give up cash or valuables. In most cases, financial abuse is as clear-cut as a fraud or theft. For example, someone cashes your pension payment or forges your signature in order to steal funds from your bank account. Many family members also misuse a power of attorney document in order to take control of an elderly individual's financial affairs.
It's the less obvious forms of abuse that are harder to pinpoint. This can include pressuring, forcing or tricking an elderly individual into lending or giving away money, property or possessions. In Rooney's case, the actor was intimidated by his stepson and blocked from accessing his mail. Rooney's family even withheld medication and food in order to force him into submission. Over the years, Rooney believes he was swindled out of nearly $400,000 before he had the courage to step forward.
How to protect yourself
Luckily, there are steps that seniors can take in order to protect themselves from financial abuse...
First, keep your financial and personal information in a safe place. Don't share your pin number or bank account information with anyone. All of this information should be documented in your will in case of an emergency.
Once your will is prepared, make sure that you also have your lawyer draw up an enduring or continuing power of attorney that appoints someone you trust to look after you and your finances if you are ever too ill to do so yourself.
If you find that you're giving money to certain family members regularly, consider keeping a money diary. Record when and to whom you give the money and note whether it was a gift or a loan. Review your diary regularly to make sure family members aren't taking advantage of your generosity or neglecting to pay you back.
If possible, avoid opening any joint bank accounts later in life. The Canadian Centre for Elder Law, a branch of the B.C. Law Institute, has seen a rising number of incidents where relatives with joint accounts or access to debit cards steal from the elderly. Not surprisingly, the centre believes these incidents will continue to increase as long as middle-aged Canadians continue to take on excessive amounts of debt.
If ever you're forced to make a major decision that involves investments or property, make sure you get your own legal advice before signing any documents. Don't just assume that family members have your best interests in mind.
Finally, make an effort to keep in touch with a variety of friends and family members as you age. Isolated elderly individuals are more likely to fall victim to financial abuse from a stranger.
How to protect the ones you love
If you're worried that a family member may be taking advantage of a loved one, don't turn a blind eye to the abuse. Instead, take the time to monitor legal paperwork and financial relationships. If your family member resists and doesn't want you meddling in their personal affairs, contact a third party professional to assist with money management.
Similarly, if an elderly friend or family member suddenly becomes withdrawn or depressed, don't just shrug it off. Look for signs of unexplained physical injuries or personal neglect. Be wary of new friends, especially if they are considerably younger and of the opposite sex.
Financial abuse of a senior is a violent crime because it can have devastating effects on the person's life. Very few seniors can ever recover from the financial loss, and many simply lose the will to live. For more information on elderly abuse, please visit the Seniors Canada website at http://www.seniors.gc.ca.