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Personal Injury Law Blog | Elder Law Blog | Los Angeles Elderly Abuse

Editorial on Gullibility of Seniors to Scams

Ambulance Chasing Lawyer
Personal injury lawyer winks as she signs a gullible client.

Gullibility is defined as:

“… a failure of social intelligence in which a person is easily tricked or manipulated into an ill advised course of action.”

(read more.)

As will be shown, elders trust even dishonest people.

The Most Recent Studies on the Elderly Brain

  • Easier to Scam Old Folks

Two studies show that the aging brain is not able to process scams or misleading information. Professor Shelley Taylor of the University of California, Los Angeles conducted one of the studies. The study data showed that a section of the brain known as the anterior insula makes the elderly are more susceptible to becoming victims of scams.

Seniors are Less Likely to Doubt or Process Visually Deceptive Information

This study data and a survey carried out earlier in the year by the University of Iowa researchers was telling. It showed that aging of the Ventromedial prefrontal cortex leads to a lesser ability to process both skepticism and doubt in visual information.

The Study Itself

The study conducted by Professor Taylor involved 119 elderly residents of a senior living home, who ranged between the ages of 55 and 84. So here, subjects saw photographs of natural or trustworthy faces. Next, they saw pictures of faces that were non-trustworthy. These were pictures of people smiling without the eyes lit-up, shifty gazes, and facial hair. Consequently, the participants were asked to rate the level of trustworthiness.

These same photographs were handed to a group of 24 staff members and students, who were between the ages of 20 and 42. Both groups had equal ratings reported for the real or neutral faces; the difference was evident with the elderly participants when assessing the untrustworthy photos.

So here, the elders were incapable of seeing the visual clues in the untrustworthy photos. Consequently, the research expanded into MRI machine monitoring. Also, the study included 23 senior citizens and 24 staff and students, who saw the same photos. As a result, testing led to the discovery that the anterior insula in the younger group became very active. Conversely, the anterior insula of elderly participants was barely active.

The “Gut Reaction” Part of the Brain

The “gut reaction,” part of the brain alarms you of the ill-at-ease feelings and stress people feel about difficult decisions, ideas, places, and people. UCLA researchers believe the lack of activity in the anterior insula causes the elderly not to notice behaviors or signals with scams. Yet, younger people have no problem picking up on these red flags. Also, this study adds to published data by University of Iowa researchers in August of 2012.

  • This study compared the ability to categorize information that was misleading in people that were elderly or who had damage from injuries to the Ventromedial prefrontal cortex, (vmPFC).
  • This organ is a softball-sized section of the brain. It remains located above the eyes.  And it controls emotions and behaviors. And these are related to the ability to feel doubt and skepticism. Plus, it is related to your impulse control.

And during this study, there were 18 patients with damage to the vmPFC and 21 patients with brain injury, but good vmPFC’s. But 21 patients had healthy brains. Patients saw advertisements deemed misleading by the Federal Trade Commission.

Remarkably, elders were twice as likely to fall for the misleading ads. And this remained true even if the ads included a disclaimer about the validity of the information. Also, the National Institute for Justice conducted a study in 2009. Of particular concern, that study showed around 12% of those over 60 were financially scammed. In 2011 Met Life Inc.’s report rated the annual loss of exploited elderly citizens around 2.9 billion dollars.

This Is Not News to Most Experienced Nursing Abuse Lawyers

As an elder abuse and nursing abuse lawyer, I did not need a study like this to tell me what has been evident in my law office practice for years now on end. Also, most of my colleagues agree. In fact, recent cases of elder financial abuse (click here) already prove that shady characters target seniors. The problem is that many of the abusers are people with a special duty of care and trust over their elder wards.

Because it is so easy to scam the elder, society as a whole must remain vigilant. And that laws already on the books need aggressive enforcement. To learn more about protecting them, contact Ehline Law Firm at 633 West 5th Street #2890 Los Angeles, CA 90071. (213) 596-9642.


Big Cities and Elder Abuse Concerns

Elder abuse senior woman being shouted at by nurse
Elder abuse concept with a senior woman in a wheelchair crying and covering her ears as a middle age nurse or other health care worker is yelling at her.

In New York City, like Los Angeles, and other cities nationwide, whether it is in the form of emotional mistreatment, physical harm, or financial scams, civil advocates for aging people who claim and file the cases of elder abuse (learn more), far outweigh the public resources available to fight it.

What are Some Facts About the Abuse?

After Hurricane Sandy, it only took a short time, before Jeanne Zieff, a Staten Island, the social worker began seeing the fallout. Before Thanksgiving, Zieff counseled an 88-year old woman, who had recently received an $8,000 FEMA check for storm damage.

And her daughter and adult grandchildren living with her, demanded she hand over the check to them. Counseling another client, Zieff heard about a granddaughter who had taken a room in the woman’s house. And that was when her basement apartment was flooded and refused to leave.

What is the New York Elder Abuse Program?

Five non-profit agencies run city-funded elder abuse programs. Zieff is the elder abuse program coordinator for the Community Agency for Senior Citizens. Zieff said she discussed the situation with the 88-year-old woman and said explain to her she has the right to say “no.” She said that it is the woman’s money and Zieff said they did a lot of role-playing.

And she told the woman, if anyone asks her for money, to call her first. The Staten Island social worker then visited the woman’s New Dorp Beach home, where she said they were not happy to see her. She said, she told the woman’s daughter.  And as Zieff put it, the FEMA check was made out to her mother. Last, her mother can do with the money what she wants.

Over Working The Civil Servant

According to Zeiff, whether there is a storm or not, her and several coworkers are working on approximately 30 cases of elder abuse. She said that their program is the only program on Staten Island that is dedicated to assisting abused senior citizens. The social workers run into cases of physical neglect, financial exploitation, sexual abuse, domestic violence, along with verbal and emotional mistreatment.

Even with the groups and agencies uniting to raise awareness of the increasing elder abuse problem and developing strategies to battle it, they are at risk. The funding for these programs was recently subject to cuts, even though they were once assumed to be included in the city budget. They are now faced with yearly campaigns to renew their contracts.

One agency director said this means operating for months at a time, without the help of city money. We have all heard the stories of attorneys being forced to hire their court reporters, and the shortened work weeks of the public employees of Los Angeles County, and the State of California. It is no different in the State of NY either, says nursing abuse lawyer, Michael P. Ehline, Esq.

Under Funding of Senior Centers

The director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, Bobbie Sackman, said that the programs now receive a total of $800,000 a year in discretionary City Council funding, for approximately 300 senior centers in five boroughs. They are severely under-resourced when looking at the size of the area that must be covered and the intensity of the cases, Sackman said.

The Crisis that is Under-Reported

Social workers are operating with small staffs and modest funding while facing rising caseloads. The social workers are conducting intensive casework. And in some instances, it means listening for hours in counseling sessions. Also, they are making daily home visits, accompanying clients to court hearings, to the bank and staying in touch with other agencies.

One of the agencies includes the Adult Protective Services or NYPD. They also hold outreach sessions for senior centers, first responders, police precincts, religious organizations, hospitals, bank tellers and others to provide education in the signs of elder abuse and how to get help or make referrals.

Elderly Abuse a Public Epidemic?

Sackman says these are the professionally trained workforce, which are the eyes and ears for the city’s elder abuse problem. They can work with the emotional area and the practical side skillfully. This is the way to support the elderly and obtain the help they need.

The director of elder abuse and police relations unit at the Carter Burden Center for the Aging on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Ken Onaitis, said one coworker and he covers half of Manhattan. He said they manage between 40 and 50 ongoing cases. Plus he said they take on approximately 15 new cases every month. Those who work with senior citizens claim that Elder abuse is a hidden public health crisis. They say there is no class or ethnic group that is immune to this type of abuse.

Unreported Cases

Zieff says that this is one of the most under-reported crimes. He asserted that approximately ninety percent of the time it is the senior’s children who commit the crime. She said when it is your child committing the crime; it involves many issues. She said the first is denial and then the older adult does not want to tell their child is stealing from them. There is the feeling of embarrassment, and the urge to protect them.

In New York state in 2010, there was a study conducted on the prevalence of elder abuse carried out in part by the city’s Department for the Aging. They determined that for every elder abuse case known to the elder abuse service system, there are as many as 24 cases that go unreported.

In New York City, approximately nine percent of the residents are age 60 or older, which equals about 120,000 seniors, who experience some form of elder abuse, within a year. The study found that older seniors suffered a higher rate of elder abuse at approximately 14%.

Likely To Increase

The number of abuse incidents is likely to rise, with the aging population living longer and the baby boomers joining the ranks of seniors. In the city, there are almost a million New Yorkers, which is approximately 12% of the population, who are 65 or older, with nearly 900,000 that will join that age bracket, within the next decade, from the 2010 census data.

Seniors – Children as Perpetrators?

According to experts the most common form of mistreatment is financial exploitation. And theft like this has only increased with lack of civility, a less mighty dollar, and greed. In 2009, the case of philanthropist Brooke Astor was in the headlines, when her son was convicted of financial elder abuse of her $200 million fortune. In that case, there was theft, and he failed to provide her with adequate medical or general care.

Elder abuse workers claim they often see seniors whose children are taking their monthly social security checks or are making extra money while using the parent’s ATM card. Evelyn Laureano, executive director of the Neighborhood Self-Help by Older Persons Project (SHOPP), in the Bronx, a city-funded elder abuse program, said seniors that often come forward to seek help.

But many are not doing it not because of the abuse, but rather due to a symptom of it. For example, let’s take a utility shut off notice or an impending eviction. Laureano said that the caseworkers are trained to look for the reason that a senior receiving $1,200 a month cannot pay their $500 rent payment.

The elder program employees see a range of elder abuse cases and say it is as complicated as “any family and as diverse as New York, itself.” They stated that “typical” examples can vary by the borough, as well. According to Onaitis, historically people have been attracted to Manhattan, from all over the country.

And many have settled independently as adults. Many were single all their lives, with few friends or family outside of the area. These seniors will often find a roommate to help cut expenses. And when the situation turns bad, the roommate will not leave, he said.

Beware the “New Best Friend”

Another situation is the “new best friend,” which is a person who will initially offer care, but then either absconds with money or becomes abusive. This is a dynamic that is often seen in many of the elder abuse cases.

An example is where the senior believes the abuser is the only thing keeping them from going to a nursing home or is dependent on the abuser for some care, according to case managers.

Educating Victims to Refuse to go along with Mistreatment

Laureano said that often the alleged abusers are the adult children of the senior, who have a dependent relationship on their elderly parents. Whatever the reason is, whether it is the son that is recently divorced, has a substance abuse problem, is homeless or lost his job, forcing him to move home and the elderly parent is the only one with an income.

There are other cases where mental illness is involved. for example, the adult child that completes a short-term stay in a psychiatric hospital, and they are discharged to their mother, and the mother is 89 years old, Laureano said in describing situations, where the fragile elderly individual has wanted protection from the child’s violent temper.

The Various Examples are Sad

Domestic violence is another issue, which involves a partner, and takes all forms. One example is Bronx resident Carolyn Vonwhervin, who had been married to her husband for 41 years. As she described it, his behavior changed, for the worse two years ago.

The man that she had been married for all these years was “very kind” she said, and with this change he began shouting accusations, using profanity using very nasty words and having tirades. Vonwhervin said it would come out of the blue and she had no idea where it was coming from. Her husband was frustrated one day because he could not find something he was looking for and punched her in the stomach.

Carolyn Vonwhervin said she felt like a lost person, and that nothing like this had ever happened to her before. Vonwhervin found SHOPP’s elder abuse Violence Intervention and Prevention program. He does so through referrals where the social worker and program director Nereida Muñiz, assisted her in developing a safety plan.

The plan was a borrowed strategy from the domestic violence programs. This also included having a plan of where to go if her husband became violent and called 911. Muñiz accompanied Vonwhervin to family court to obtain an order of protection and discussed finding safe housing.

Vonwhervin’s husband was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, prostate cancer, and dementia. Once on medication, his demeanor calmed down, and she was able to return home to care for him. But she needed the help of a home health aide, until his death this month.

Eslyn Rawlings, age 71 is another person that Muñiz recently began working with, who called 911. Rawlings said she had a bad day with her husband and is now receiving help for verbal and emotional abuse that she says went on for over 30 years.

Her husband has made no comment about the violence. Rawlings said this is the first time she has spoken openly about her marriage and is delighted she is receiving help. She said that the “Lord” provided someone to listen to her, and she doesn’t feel alone.

Elder Isolation and Why it Hurts So Bad?

According to Zieff, the words of these women, the abuse is very isolating. Social workers in these programs use supportive counseling and listen, but place a priority on physical safety; they say they work from what they refer to as “strengths perspective.”

Onaitis stated that clients are asked to examine what is good in their lives, what problems they are having and how they handle the situation, and then they are wondered how they handled these cases in the past.

They work on building self-esteem, not just calling the police and having the abuser taken out. So then they can come right back in the door, he said. A large part of what these agencies provide is practical assistance.

Social worker Muñiz stated in the Bronx; she has been able to have senior’s bank accounts restored by the bank when they have reviewed the ATM camera footage. Often they have seen it was not the account holder, who is an old customer making the withdrawals.

There is a citywide push to combat and the prevention of elder abuse. Several non-profit and government organizations in 2009, formed the New York City Elder Abuse Center. This is a network that responds and works in partnership in complex elder abuse cases, with expertise.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office, in 2010 restructured its elder abuse unit, which now says it prosecutes approximately 700 elder abuse cases every year. The district attorney’s offices in both Brooklyn and the Bronx also have elder abuse task forces.

The City Council members for the first time were able to choose elder abuse as a topic to make educational pamphlets that they distribute to constituents. The information in the brochures provided an informative tone on what elder abuse is, where they could call for help and included the five city-funded agencies in the brochure.

Council Member Jessica Lappin said they want people to realize that elder abuse is more common than they think. She needs for them to have the strength to report it when it happens to them or someone they may know. Lappin has chaired the Council’s Aging Committee, since 2010.

Agency and Community Commitment

According to Sackman, the formation of a “community watch,” which observes, identifies and reports potential cases of elder abuse, and more public awareness is essential in battling elder abuse in the city. She, along with others have requested that the City Council make funding elder abuse programs automatic, rather than being subject to annual contracts.

Sackman said, is it fair to question the commitment and the money should be in place already. Lappin said that there is no real opposition to the base-lining of funding. Also, she would like to see the Council restore the base-lined status funding.

She said that everyone realizes how important these programs are, but there are conflicting priorities. The budget has to be balanced an issue and fiscal reality. She said, since 2009, the city’s Department for the Aging has seen significant budget cuts. So these fell on senior citizen centers, other programs, Meals on Wheels and elder abuse work.

Lappin said that with the hurricane, they saw how important the services are. And he said that Meals on Wheels volunteers carried food up many flights of stairs to seniors. These are those who were not normally on their routes. Funding to baseline for senior centers was restored last year.

But she believes it is too early to determine what will happen with this year’s budget. She said especially with the hurricane, which will have a large impact on the overall budget.

Zieff continues her work, currently and stated that they were hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. She says they believe they are going to see more exploitation of the elderly and people will be moving in with each other; she said she shudders to think what will occur with that happening.

Los Angeles has been hit by a history of taxing and spending. We have seen businesses leaving our state in droves. That is one of the reasons why there is no money left to pay for a court of record, for example. One can see there are many parallels to what is happening in New York.

Other Sources


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