Economic security is fundamental to ensuring all people can thrive in their later years. Adequate financial resources help old adults continue living in the homes and communities they love, access the health services they need, and stay connected to family and friends. Yet, many people lack the knowledge and resources necessary to plan financially for older age. Additionally, financial exploitation of older adults is on the rise, affecting up to five million older Americans each year and totaling an annual victims’ loss of over $36.5 billion.
In recognition of Financial Awareness Month, Age Friendly Seattle’s August Civic Coffee featured panelists Donna O’Connor, Program Manager and Financial Coach at Hopelink, and Page Ulrey and Kathy Van Olst, both Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorneys with the King County Prosecutor’s Office on the Elder and Vulnerable Abuse team. The full recording is well worth watching, as these panelists have formidable expertise and shared great tips and insights.
Older adults are especially vulnerable to financial fraud and abuse because, as Kathy points out, elders and people with disabilities are often more isolated. While people of all ages are targets and can fall victim to scams, the loneliness and social isolation experienced by many older adults make them more susceptible. “Stringed relationships” are another contributor to financial stress. Both Page and Donna note that when older adults become reliant on someone for rides or other assistance, they are less likely to feel empowered to push back against requests for money. In many cases, this causes stress and anxiety; in the worst cases, this leads to exploitation and abuse. Page notes that the majority of elder financial abuse cases involve a trust relationship, whether that is a family member, paid caregiver, or scammer who befriends an older person.
Although financial exploitation cases are on the rise locally and nationally, efforts are underway to better identify abuse, coordinate response, and pursue perpetrators. It can be challenging to identify when abuse is occurring, as victims may seemingly be making their own decisions about money. However, further investigation may reveal that a “new friend” has taken emotional control over an older adult, or that early-stage dementia has reduced someone’s decision-making capacity. The King County Prosecutor’s Office has invested in helping law enforcement, adult protective services, and attorneys understand more about cognitive impairments, undue influence, and civil matters like guardianship and power of attorney to encourage a coordinated response to these economic crimes.
One big take-away message from Kathy and Page: drop the stigma about reaching out and reporting suspected financial exploitation. If an older adult suddenly has someone new in their life who is extremely nice, this may be a red flag. Other warning signs are changes in spending patterns, reduced involvement in previous hobbies, changes in wills or powers of attorney. Reporting may feel uncomfortable, but professional support may ultimately help protect someone.
In addition to avoiding scams, financial stability requires honest conversations and realistic planning. In Donna’s experience, most people do like to talk about money, but only when they feel safe. It can be an empowering experience to understand personal finances, set goals, and meet them. Many of the older adults she works with are concerned about managing expenses that out-pace fixed incomes; this is especially true in our current inflationary environment. Challenges like existing debt and lack of active credit lines can make it difficult for people to access housing and financial products. This disproportionately impacts older adults of color, who have experienced a lifetime of systems that have denied them opportunities to build wealth. For example, people of color are more likely to make rental instead of mortgage payments, which are not recognized on a credit report. This is likely one reason why people of color are more likely to have a subprime FICO score than whites, which could ultimately cost them thousands of dollars in interest payments.
Donna recognizes that talking about money is emotional. She recommends starting by exploring our individual and unique relationships with money, our personal values and priorities, and our financial goals. She invites us all to think about what security means to us, now and in the future. These fundamentals can help drive decision-making after we take an honest look at how much money is coming into our household, and how much is going out. Family members and caregivers can play an important role in starting and facilitating these conversations. While it can sometimes be awkward—especially if roles between parent and child are starting to reverse—there are a wealth of resources to help guide these discussions.
Preparing for financial stability and understanding how to spot and avoid fraud and abuse are important parts of life. Older adults, family members, and even younger people have much to gain from embracing this potentially uncomfortable topic and creating our own roadmaps to economic security. Age Friendly Seattle is grateful to our Civic Coffee panelists for their work and insights on this topic, and we wish everyone success in defining and pursuing your personal financial goals!
Contributor Dinah Stephens manages the Age Friendly Seattle initiative and facilitates Civic Coffees. Look for information about past and future events here. To join the Age Friendly Seattle distribution list, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.