A person putting grocery items in a shopping cart (Canva photo illustration)
Small things like adult children asking parents to pay for extra groceries can escalate into financial exploitation of vulnerable older family members. (Canva photo illustration)

It can start with something as small as a gallon of milk.

An adult daughter helping her mother shop for groceries mentions that she needs milk and her mother says, “Put it in with mine. I’ll pay for it.”

Then the daughter asks for more and more each time — for rent, a credit card payment, maybe even a car.

“It doesn’t feel like stealing until it becomes thousands of dollars,” said Robert Short, a chief attorney in the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office. “We’ve prosecuted spouses, children, grandchildren.” 

His office prosecutes cases of elder abuse, including: 

  • An attorney who restructured a woman’s estate plan so many times that he eventually positioned himself to inherit her entire estate. 
  • A nurse who paid all the bills on time for a patient in a nursing home. When the patient died, the family discovered her account had been drained of hundreds of thousands of dollars. 
  • A home health care worker who routinely used a patient’s debit card daily to buy liquor.
  • A daughter with durable power of attorney who used her mother’s checking account for her personal use. 

Boomer wealth big target for elder fraud

Financial scams against older adults rank among the fastest growing crimes in the country. They hit people across all income and education levels. Victims range from people who remain sharp mentally to those in cognitive decline. It wrecks family relationships and robs older people of financial security in retirement. “In the next 10 years, (baby boomers) will hand off to the next generation billions of dollars,” Short said. “Some (heirs) want their money now.” 

American baby boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 —  are the wealthiest generation ever. Their mean net worth is about $1.2 million, according to Fortune. 

The FBI reported that about 88,000 people over the age of 60 lost a combined $3.1 billion to financial elder abuse in 2022. A 2023 AARP study puts the figure at $28.3 billion, based on an assumption that nearly 9 in 10 older adults victimized by someone they know never report it to the authorities.

Hotline fields elder fraud and abuse calls

The state of Kansas tracks reports of elder abuse reported to its hotline, 800-922-5330. The hotline is operated by Adult Protective Services, or APS, at the Kansas Department for Children and Families. 

Hotline calls increased 30% from 2022 to 2023, said Chrisy Khatib, APS deputy director. About 1 in 5 reports leads to an investigation, she said. That rate has held steady over the past few years.  

Khatib said people are reluctant to make reports out of fear of simply giving life to false suspicions or appearing to pry in someone’s personal affairs. She said reports can be made anonymously.

“It’s OK to be nosy,” she said. “I would rather have someone make an error than have somebody lose all their life assets.” 

Who must report?

Licensed health care professionals, therapists, social workers, bank officers, attorneys and care facilities are required under Kansas law to report suspected elder abuse and neglect. That includes theft. Failure to report is a Class B misdemeanor involving fines.  

According to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, these are red flags to watch for: 

  • Sudden changes in a will or other financial document.
  • Transferring assets.
  • Withdrawals of cash at ATMs.
  • Unexplained missing funds.
  • Unpaid bills. 
  • Added names to bank accounts. 
  • New applications for credit cards.
  • Forged signatures on checks.
  • Previously uninvolved relatives or friends becoming the elder’s representative.

Adults going through cognitive decline before they’ve been diagnosed with dementia can prove especially vulnerable, said Kathy Adkins, a nurse, dementia specialist and educator in Wichita. Dementia can sometimes start as early as 20 to 30 years before diagnosis.

How to protect the elderly

Adkins advises families to get power of attorney paperwork in place before a dementia diagnosis. 

“Once a person has been diagnosed with dementia, it’s full stop,” she said. “They cannot sign any legal documents.” 

A person given durable power of attorney can step in legally to handle finances immediately. They can also be given authority that only kicks in when a person is no longer capable of making those decisions. If no one’s been given that authority, a judge can appoint a guardian who is legally required to file an annual report about your care and expenses.    

Short advises older adults do the following to protect their finances:

  • Get matters such as an estate plan in place before mental capacity becomes an issue. 
  • Pick your durable power of attorney very carefully and make sure they want the job. 
  • Build in checks and balances so no one person is totally in charge of spending. Make sure someone else can oversee the books. 
  • Get online access to your accounts and check on your assets regularly.

The consequences of getting caught

If elder financial abuse reaches the courts, cases are tried under a Kansas law that makes anyone 60 or older or disabled adults a protected class of citizens. “It’s a complicated area,” Short said. “Often, family disputes are settled in probate court, rather than … civil courts, which can eat up thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees.” 

A felony can carry prison time, fines and restitution, but most criminal cases are resolved with plea agreements, Short said. 

Judgments vary depending on the crime. A misdemeanor can carry jail, restitution fines and financial penalties. But even a $500 loss can be a quality of life issue for those on a fixed income. 

“We would be very aggressive to get that $500 back,” he said. “$500,000 is harder.”

In cases of what Short describes as “embezzlement within an internal circle of trust,” his office meets with the family and asks their preference: Send the offender to prison? Get the money back? Put the abuser on probation? 

Some families want someone punished. Others only want the money back. If the money’s gone, but the guilty person has a plan to pay it back, the prison sentence can be held in abeyance as long as payments are made.

But if it goes to trial, offenders should expect harsh penalties. 

“Juries are very harsh and so are judges,” Short said. ”People do not like elder abuse.”

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Cecilia Green is a freelancer covering issues relevant to seniors. She was an award-winning PR director for professional associations in Chicago for 25 years before she and her husband moved back to Wichita...