Building Communities to Fight Elder Financial Exploitation

Presented at the Investor Education Section Forum, 2016 Annual Conference: Diversity in Today’s Financial Marketplace of the North American Securities Administrators Association. Providence, Rhode Island. September 12, 2016.


A decade ago, I was filled with angst, frustration and a sense of impotence as I watched my grandmother’s world, which had spanned the globe and a century, become so diminished and compromised by her son, my father.

I did not know what to do or who to turn to. Yet, when bad things happen, good people get together.

In helping my fragile and abused grandmother, I was not alone. Her abuse galvanized a collective response by her informal ‘circle of support’: family, friends, staff and caregivers all united by a common cause.

Such is the compassion of diversity.

We were individuals with a great mixed skill-set. The strength of our diversity contributed much to our success in saving my grandmother, then helping prosecutors bring my father and one of my grandmother’s attorneys to justice.

For my grandmother, and many others, elder abuse is not a family affair or a civil matter. It is a crime and needs to be treated as such so victims and their supporters are not re-victimized. If I could do it over again, I would have called the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office immediately.

Today, we are addressing elder financial exploitation but, sadly, such exploitation can go hand in hand with other forms of abuse: neglect, isolation, and physical, sexual and psychological maltreatment with elders poly-victimized (or subject to “hybrid elder financial exploitation”) — and re-victimized, as my grandmother was.

Elder abuse affects millions of individuals, families and communities nationwide cutting across all social, religious, cultural and economic lines.

Elder abuse, though widespread, remains under the radar and underreported, with actual exploitation being 23 to 44 times greater than reported numbers imply. (Under the Radar, 2011) In fact, some one in five elders are estimated to be financially exploited. (Investor’s Protection Trust, 2016)

Such is the shadow of diversity.


As my grandmother now rests in peace, I could have resumed my life as before.

For years my battle for my grandmother, and my battle against my father consumed my life — and consumed our family.

In 2009, after a six-month criminal trial and conviction of my father, a friend said, “You must be glad that’s all behind you.”

But, I realize: When elder abuse hits home, it hurts.

I realize: While my grandmother was emotionally and financially abused…and socially isolated, her case is far from isolated.

I realize: The aftermath of elder abuse far exceeds any dollar amount. Most costs are irretrievable; some, compounded.

And I realize: To be complacent about elder justice is to be complicit in elder abuse.

Our silence…protects perpetrators, not their victims.

Today, victims of this crime may be strangers. Tomorrow, they may be our loved ones, or perhaps, in the future, ourselves. Seniors and society deserve more.

Elder ecology

To explore how diversity will help address and arrest elder abuse, we can take an ecological approach.

‘Elder ecology’ (my term) applies an adaptation of the ecological systems theory of Urie Bronfenbrenner, now advanced by Karl Pillemer, Cornell gerontologist and professor of human development.

First used for children, the theory has application for seniors as we seek to understand ‘society and self,’ with seniors centered in a community context in multiple social environments and relationships over time.

Just as elder ecology addresses the contextual risk factors of elder abuse (Sciamberg and Gans, 2000), it also embraces senior’s ‘circles of support’:

First, intimate family and immediate friends and neighbors;

Then community connections, from worshipers to fellow workers;

To ‘trusted professionals’: postal carriers, healthcare providers, financial advisers and others;

And far outward, from media broadcasters to first responders, from legislators to regulators — and many more.

We strengthen our approach to elder ecology when we work not for but with elders; with their circles of support; and within their communities. This is why NASAA’s Serve Our Seniors web site and its resources are so important.

Such is the ecology of diversity.

Our financial industry plays a key, leadership role…given the close relationship you share with your clients, and your ability to report suspected exploitation and fight to protect your investors.

Industry efforts can extend to include even those who are without any security or unbanked. For these citizens, we can “greenline” the elder justice movement under the Community Reinvestment Act where credits can be provided to the banking industry when it invests in detection and response through staff training.

Such is the inclusion of diversity with its acknowledgement and acceptance of all, including those most marginalized.


In helping my grandmother, I first felt that financials were our fallback — for our greatest concern was her psychological and physical wellbeing.

As I now know, financials are at the forefront of our campaign for elder justice.

In my grandmother’s elder abuse there was both opportunity and motive.

The opportunity was provided when my grandmother, at 100 years old, was frail, in the throes of Alzheimer’s and susceptible to coercion and psychological manipulation.

And there was motive. Transgressions were fueled by my father’s mistaken belief that, irrespective of her needs and wishes, he deserved and could take whatever his mother had. This included tens of millions of dollars — and her wellbeing.

Here my father used his power of attorney as a weapon and a shield to steal — as chronicled by large, irregular financial transactions.

So emboldened by successful gain of such sums, my father escalated his insidious, serial exploitation by having his mother ‘sign’ three codicils (using three lawyers) that transferred almost one hundred million dollars to his control — three years after he claimed she was “delusional.”

With increased and simplified reporting such egregious acts could have been arrested early on protecting my grandmother from added loss and injury.

Such is the responsibility and response of diversity.

Systems-based solutions

Elder abuse is a profound, pervasive, and systemic problem best addressed though systems-based solutions to understand better our universe of elder-justice with its constellations, the alignment of its shining stars and the forces that keep them apart or draw them together by the gravity of elder abuse.

Within this framework, metrics matter more now to assess gaps, needs, opportunities and efforts along the way. Just as elder justice is in its infancy, so is big-data analytics. Both seek to explore and enhance relationships — and their value in our complex lives. Both must be cradled in a legally and ethically constituted ‘trust framework.’ This is where, as trusted professionals, you are so important.

Coupled with increased and simplified reporting processes, and cross reporting, continued investment in big-data by financial institutions can harness streaming analytics for detection and rapid response and then sandbox warehoused analytics toward proactive prevention of exploitation — as soon as the technology becomes available.

To assist in rapid response, a single, unified reporting portal is needed to route complaints while alerting all those able to help.

The sharing of financial information between Adult Protective Services, law enforcement and other agencies is critical to achieve a coordinated multi-disciplinary response.

An example of proactive, coordinated work is how the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA), in recognition of the critical role the financial industry plays in responding to elder abuse, created the Elder Financial Exploitation Advisory Board, with industry members including NASAA’s own Joey Brady [Executive Director] and with Judy Shaw [President, NASAA] presenting at its recent Summit on Elder Financial Exploitation.

Our states, as “laboratories of democracy,” span from Washington State instituting the first state securities Report & Hold law, to Judy Shaw’s own state of Maine and its senior protection efforts made across banking, credit unions and financial services.

As Maine goes, so goes the nation.

Along the way, elder justice will crisscross our communities with guidance from the financial industry and support from both sides of the aisle — for the campaign color of elder justice is purple, an equal measure of red and blue.

It is clear that states’ efforts on senior protection are active, innovative and growing. Formative assessment will help each state while informing others. When progress in our states is coupled with federal legislation and bills like the Senior$afe Act (S.2216, H.R.4538) and the and the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act (S.3270) — supported by regulators and the regulated alike — much progress in protecting our seniors can be achieved.

We are united states — here, coalesced by NASAA’s leadership and state and federal legislation. Elder justice practitioners applaud NASAA’s efforts and are so grateful for your shared concern and demonstrated commitment.

Such is the state of diversity.


Even more can be accomplished together when we intentionally couple financial management with health care, creating ‘whealthcare,’ to address wealth and health. When it comes to the cognitive abilities of elders, in some ways the financial industry knows more about their clients than doctors do their patients. Let’s put our heads together here.

Whealthcare was recently explored at a World Economic Forum conference co-sponsored and hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. Jason Karlawish at Penn Memory Center is now advancing efforts, imparting hybrid vigor with academic rigor. Dr. Karlawish observes, “If we start to look after people’s wealth, we can also effectively monitor their health.”

There are emerging examples of enhanced multidisciplinary teams that include the financial and healthcare industries. Teams take a person-centered approach to response, recovery and resiliency of victims in the context of their circles of support and communities.

Examples include a three-year, $1 million Elder Abuse Prevention Interventions Grant from the U.S. Administration for Community Living (ACL) to the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA), as chronicled by the NYC Elder Abuse Center, a project partner.

Such are the wealth and health of diversity.


We have to come to terms with our terminology, making it consistent to facilitate decision support, reporting and analytics.

For now, our cause is hampered by inconsistent terminology that compromises awareness, prevention and intervention strategies — and that shatters any illusion we know the real prevalence of elder abuse.

For example, as illustrated by the sad circumstances surrounding my grandmother, Sumner Redstone, and too many others, ‘undue influence’ storms into seniors’ frail lives.

As perpetrators know, psychological manipulation by undue influence is so effective in commanding their power while further compromising seniors who have cognitive impairment and may lack testamentary capacity. Undue influence can weaken seniors’ wellbeing and their wishes.

In horror, I recognized this was happening to my grandmother, when she was most vulnerable.

A transaction in early 2002 raised red flags. I heard that while my father was cutting back on my grandmother’s expenses he had sold her favorite painting, Flags, Fifth Avenue by Childe Hassam — one that she had bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The sale realized $10 million, two of which my father kept as a “commission.” This later earned him a conviction on grand larceny.

On hearing of the sale, my grandmother, who had been led to believe she was running out of money, asked, “Now, can I buy dresses?”

My grandmother went from the limelight, center stage as lead actor in her own life, to being ‘gaslighted,’ by her son, who psychologically broke her down into believing she was going broke.

Undue influence is elusive — from seniors’ homes, to our court houses and for responders along the way. But advances are being made.

California updated its laws defining undue influence in 2014 so judges, for the first time, have specific means to evaluate its existence in a given case. While Adult Protective Services professionals see the most undue influence cases, they have had no specific way to detect it. Funded by the Borchard Foundation Center on Law & Aging, Mary Joy Quinn a national expert on elder abuse and neglect, headed a project to develop the California Undue Influence Screening Tool (CUIST) to help APS personnel screen for suspected undue influence using elements contained in California Probate Code and Welfare and Institutions Code. (CEJC) It is likely that CUIST will be useful to other professions such as law, enforcement, prosecutors and estate planners.

Here, a new statutory legal definition, screening tool and pilot are aimed to maximize use and effectiveness in the field, informed by ‘diffusion of innovations theory.’ (Roger, 2003)

In our campaign from case to cause, we will advance by going from case to case law.

Such are the terms of diversity.

Ageless equity

My grandmother would never want to be remembered, only, as one of America’s most famous cases of elder abuse. In such a context, victimization, “trims a life to fit the frame.” (James Hillman)

Here is my grandmother’s greatest legacy: that, as a senior for over four decades, she practiced philanthropy whose priceless essence is the “love of humanity.” It is through the lens of humanity that we see seniors, otherwise made invisible by our ageist attitude.

We achieve ‘ageless equity’ when the scales of justice balance the promise of our rising generations with our promise to those upon whose shoulders they stand. Ageless equity is given added meaning with today’s great wealth transfer: Just as seniors ‘pass it forward’ to our next generations, we ‘pass it back’ as we ‘Serve Our Seniors’ — investing in their self-worth, not only investing their net worth.

Here we couple wealth and health with society and self.

Such is the equity of diversity.

Thank you for allowing me to share lessons learned from my grandmother’s sad circumstances and to address needs, opportunities and means to advance elder justice.

Philip C. Marshall is Professor and Director, Historic Preservation Program, Roger Williams University, and advocate for elder justice

Minor edits reflect constructive comments by the audience and reviewers.