Elder Financial Exploitation: Power & Control

Actor Mickey Rooney’s recent Senate testimony regarding his experience as a victim of elder abuse has shined a light on an unfortunately frequent but often silent crime in our society – elder financial exploitation. Like many elderly victims, Mr. Rooney silently endured this exploitation – and the heart-wrenching emotional abuse that accompanied it – for years before finally speaking out. He was frightened, angry, overwhelmed and couldn’t believe that it was happening to him. He was afraid of what might happen if the abuse was revealed – and what his other family members might think. He was ashamed to have become a victim. Mickey Rooney’s abusers stole his power to control his own life. When he tried to speak up for himself, Mr. Rooney was told to be quiet. He was told that it was none of his business and that it was for his own good.

This is the essence of elder financial exploitation. The abuser – often a trusted family member – utilizes his or her power to seize control of the elder’s finances and, ultimately, his life. It often starts out gradually, with the abuser establishing a “helping” relationship in which she or he offers services or care as a means to strengthen the elder’s trust and confidence. The exploiter then isolates the victim from other sources of support and instills the idea that she or he is the only one who can keep the victim safe and provide the help needed to remain independent. Often, the victim is made to believe that family members are only out to exploit him or put him in a nursing home.

Once the elder is dependent on the abuser, demands for increased compensation, access to funds or control over management of the finances are made as a condition of continued care. Deceit, intimidation, demoralizing statements and/or the withholding of basic care and necessities are then used as a means of maintaining control over the victim. In Mr. Rooney’s case, his abusers withheld food and necessary medications. They bullied and threatened him. They made him feel completely dependent and utterly useless. They made him believe that he had no option but to continue in his present situation.

Elder financial exploitation is elder abuse. And those who perpetrate it are not unlike those who engage in child abuse or domestic violence. Perpetrators of all types of abuse utilize their power to control those they perceive to be less powerful. They believe that they are entitled to use any method of control necessary in order to reap personal benefit.

Mr. Rooney shared his very personal story of abuse with the Senate Special Committee on Aging in hopes that he could affect change on a national level. More importantly, he shared his story so that others like him – elders who are currently suffering in silence – would be given the courage to speak up and end their abuse. We should all learn a lesson from Mr. Rooney. Take action! Stand up for the rights of all citizens to live a life free of violence, exploitation and intimidation. Speak out when you see others infringing on those rights. Ending abuse is everyone’s responsibility.

This article is brought to you in part by the Door County Coordinated Community Response (CCR) to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Teams and the Door County Elder and Adult-at-Risk Interdisciplinary Team.