Mickey Rooney took on a new role last week, as an advocate for abused seniors. His personal story of betrayal was painful to watch. The 90-year-old actor bravely shared the shame and humiliation of elder abuse with members of Congress and the entire country.
"For years I suffered silently, unable to muster the courage to seek the help I knew I needed,” he said.
Rooney told a Senate subcommittee a family member withheld food and medicine and meddled in his personal finances. If this could happen to him, Rooney said, it could happen to anyone. He urged lawmakers to do something about the growing problem — and do it now.
Financial abuse of the elderly is a serious problem, even though we rarely hear about it. done by MetLife Mature Market Institute in 2009 estimated the financial loss from abuses to be at least $2.6 billion a year. But that’s just an educated guess.
“Right now, we truly don’t know how much exists,” says Professor Pamela Teaster, who chairs the department of gerontology at the University of Kentucky and is on the board of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. “We believe it is an incredibly under-reported problem.”
The MetLife study, which Teaster helped write, found that only one in six cases of elderly financial abuse is ever reported. Based on new information, she says, that figure now appears to be conservative.
“We have hit some hard financial times and we’re seeing the exploitation increasing,” Teaster said.
The opportunities for abuse of the elderly are almost limitless. The exploitation can take place at a care facility where a staff member is able to cozy up to a resident to get jewelry, money or power of attorney. In other cases, family members believe they are entitled to their parents’ or grandparents’ money and find ways to take it.
Con artists also prey on older people, because as a group they control a tremendous amount of this country’s wealth. And in many cases, poor health — both physical and mental — makes them easy targets for financial predators.
“It can be a complete stranger, a dishonest telemarketer or someone who just befriends an older person, either through the phone, Internet or some happenstance meeting,” explained Bob Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition. “It’s sad to see them take advantage of these vulnerable people.”
One family’s tragic story
Katsu and Charles Bradley of Tacoma, Wash., owned their home and had set aside a nice nest egg for their retirement years. When they could no longer care for themselves because of advanced forms of dementia, the family hired Norma Cheesman to be a live-in caregiver.
The Bradleys’ daughter, Caroline Moye of Seattle, tells me Cheesman “took everything” her parents had worked and saved for their entire lives.
"She thought she had found the goose that laid the golden egg,” Moye said. “And in a matter of 10 months she made my parents homeless and penniless.”
The prosecutor in King County, Wash., has charged Cheesman with various felonies, including theft and forgery. Court papers say within months of moving in, Cheesman convinced 86-year old Charles Bradley to give her power of attorney, name her as beneficiary of his estate and disinherit his wife.
Cheesman is also accused of facilitating a reverse mortgage on the Bradleys' house (which the couple owned free and clear) as a way to fill their bank account with a large sum of money which she could then steal. The prosecutor claims Cheesman literally guided Katsu Bradley’s hand to sign her name on the loan documents because she was too infirm at the time to sign her name herself.
Court papers say Cheesman then had Mr. Bradley withdraw huge amounts of cash from the couple’s savings and persuaded him to buy the home she was living in.
In all, the Bradleys' estimated cash losses are put at more than $300,000. And the home they lived in for 45 years went into foreclosure. Charles and Katsu Bradley died within a month of each other in 2008 with just $374 in the bank.
Somehow Cheesman, the trusted caregiver, was able to do all this without the family finding out. To this day Caroline Moye finds that so hard to believe.
“I called my mom and dad every single day.” Moye said. “It's not like we weren't involved with my parents. But she pulled the wool over our eyes and was methodical in taking every single penny that she could.”
Norma Cheesman has still not answered to the charges. She did not show up for several court hearings and no one knows where she is. A few weeks ago, a judge issued a warrant for her arrest.
It will take a village to tackle this problem
Experts who deal with elder abuse say it takes place in every community. And it’s sure to get worse as baby boomers move into their senior years.
“I think we need to prepare ourselves for a huge wave of more and more victims in the next five to 10 years, unless we train our law enforcement and prosecutors how to deal with it,” said Paul Greenwood, head of elder abuse prosecutions unit at the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.
Greenwood says the hardest part of his job is finding out about abusers in the community. That requires people to report suspected abuse and for police to treat it like the serious crime it is.
California requires certain groups of people — bankers, clergy and health care providers — to report anything that might indicate financial exploitation of a senior.
Greenwood believes every state should have such a mandatory reporting law. He also believes every major prosecutor’s office in the country should have at least one person dedicated to financial elder abuse. He calls it a cop-out to blame budget constraints for not doing this.
“You’ll never meet a prosecutor who doesn’t prosecute DUIs for lack of money,” Greenwood said. “They wouldn’t dare not to prosecute them.”
When he talks to judges, Greenwood tries to explain that financial abuse of a senior is a violent crime, because it can have a devastating effect on that person’s life. Someone in their 70s or 80s may never recover from the financial loss.
“I do believe that in some instances it shortens their lifespan,” Greenwood told me. “I’ve seen cases where in two or three months after the crime, the victim seems to give up the will to live. In one case that was devastating, the victim committed suicide because he felt there was no reason to keep living.”
Pamela Teaster with the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse says we, as a society, need to make it clear that we will not tolerate this crime.
“We need to treat our elders better,” she said. “The bad guys need to be caught and punished.”