Doctors, Watchdogs against Elder Fraud

By now most of us have heard about Bernie Madoff and the billions of dollars he swindled from people all over the country. But we may not be aware that this type of fraud, on a much smaller scale, is happening around us all the time. And the people who are most often the victims of these crimes are the elderly.
About 7.3 million older Americans, or one out of every five people over 65 have already been swindled according to an Investor Protection Trust Survey released in June. Recent research from behavior economist David Laibson shows that people tend to make poorer financial decisions as they get older.

But some states have taken steps to help seniors avoid these scams. 23 states including California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania have enlisted Doctors and other medical professionals to be the watchdogs in the fight against elder fraud. Working through the Investment Protection Trust, state regulators are alerting medical professionals to specific red flags that help identify older Americans who may be more vulnerable to investment fraud abuse.

In routine visits with their patients these doctors are trained to ask such questions as “Who manages your money day to day” or “Do you regret any financial decisions you made recently?” Other questions include, “Is anyone pressuring you to give them money?” or ” Has anyone asked you to change your will or your power of attorney?”

More than half of the 67 doctors who were involved in a pilot study in Texas discovered that their patients had been approached with phony financial offers. Financial Planners should also become vigilant in their interactions with their older clients. When I was a practicing financial adviser I learned that one of my older retired doctor clients, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, had been contacted by scam artists all over the country. They told him he had won a lottery and he needed to give them his bank account numbers so they could wire him the money. His wife had to finally get an unlisted phone humber so they would leave him alone.

Elderly parents often will not share these occurrences with their adult children because they don’t want to be viewed as incompetent or gullible. Therefore it is important that their children discuss these problems with the parents’ doctors and ask them to use the questions I have listed above.

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How to talk with Mom and Dad

Opening up a conversation with your elderly parents about important issues can often be a very stressful and difficult task. You know there are certain things you need to talk to them about but you often fear that they might speculate what your motives are. So how do you open up those conversations without embarrassing yourself and upsetting your parents?

First you must remember that one of their primary concerns ( according to David Solie in hs book, “How to Say it to Seniors” )is maintaining control of their lives. They don’t want to be told that they can’t drive anymore or that they have to move out of their house into a retirement community. Even if these choices are in their best interest they will be very reluctant to comply if they don’t feel that they have made the decision.

But you also need to know that you don’t want to wait until its a crisis to approach your parents. In my 30 years as a financial adviser to hundreds of families, I never saw things go well when families tried to make decisions after a loved one was already in trouble. These situations are fraught with emotion and people don’t often think very clearly when things are unraveling.

Now, while your parents are still healthy ( hopefully) plan out what issues you need to discuss with them before you approach them. Try writing them a letter expressing your concerns and thoughts. Don’t give them the letter but use it as tool to explore your own emotions. Narrow down your concerns to be as specific as possible. What are you anxious about? Enroll the ear of a friend or spouse and read your letter to them. Do they think your concerns are legitimate and worth discussing? Finally, listen to the letter as if you were your parents. Where do you think there will be resistance or stubbornness?

Once you know the focus of your conversation develop an ice breaking phrase that you can use  with your parents. Make sure your questions are open ended and leave room for them to express their opinions. For example,” Mom, recently one of my friends told me her mom was having difficulty keeping up with all the chores around the house. What do you think she should do?” Or, “Dad, can I get your opinion on a couple of things?” Or as simply as “Mom, can we talk?” One of my favorites was “ Dad, how are you enjoying those golden years?”

Your parents probably want to talk about the same concerns you have, but they just don’t want to upset you or mention things that are uncomfortable. They certainly don’’t want to be told what to do. But by easing into the conversation and creating an environment that is safe, you can eliminate a lot of stress for them and yourself. You’ll also give them the opportunity to age with dignity and peace of mind.