When Caring for an Elderly Relative becomes undue influence

posted by Eric Schutzbank

Taking care of a deceased person’s assets and business affairs adds stress to an already emotional situation. Adding to the anxiety, families sometimes discover their loved one has been taken advantage of or manipulated by the relative they entrusted to provide care. A vulnerable elderly person is easy prey to someone who wants to manipulate them by seeking to be a beneficiary of their estate to the possible exclusion of the rest of the family. If a family member suspects this has occurred, do they have any legal recourse and/or means to protect the Elder who is being financially exploited? Yes. The first step is to make a report to your local Elder Services Agency so that a protective services investigation can be initiated in accord with M. G. L. c. 19A.  Please keep in mind that if the Elder is deemed competent, he or she can legally refuse to accept the services/protections provided by the mandated Elder Services Agencies in Massachusetts.  What is undue influence and how can it be proved?

Undue Influence Defined

As the name implies, undue influence means that a vulnerable person was influenced in a manipulative way. Generally, a powerful individual has used unfair means such as deception, exploitation of the elder’s disabilities or weaknesses, has fostered dependency, played on fears, emotionally embarrassed or blackmailed the elder or isolated the elder from other honest family members or others the elder would ordinarily trust.  The perpetrators use various techniques and manipulations to gain power and compliance, exploiting the trust, dependency and fear of older adults. Over time, the perpetrators gain control over the decision making of their unwitting victims.

Anyone can be unduly influenced, including the stressed, ill, sleep deprived, lonely or frightened of any age, but the elderly are particularly at risk because of failing health, isolation and a tendency to trust.

Signs that one can look for to determine if an elder has been subjected to undue influence include:

The perpetrator Isolates the elder from others by telling the victim he or she was abandoned by his or her relatives and cutting off outside communication by telling visitors or callers that the elder does not want to see or talk to them.   They can also make the elder believe that “enemies” are lurking everywhere. The perpetrator of the undue influence can manipulate the elder into believing that health care providers, caregivers, friends and even family members are going to somehow hurt them physically or are after their money and do not care about them.  They convince their victims that these “enemies” are going to take away their houses, pensions and Social Security, and that they are going to abandon them and place them in nursing homes.  They foster dependency by creating a fictitious reality in which the undue influencer is the only trustworthy person and the only one who cares about the older person.  They also create a sense of powerlessness and persuades the elder over time that only they have the power to do anything to help the elder.  They also will often convince the elder that he or she is weaker than in reality by exaggerating their illnesses and disabilities.  The perpetrator treats the elder more and more fragilely, exaggerating their ailments.

Who Are the Perpetrators?

Unfortunately, individuals who prey on vulnerable seniors are often the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. They may appear to be warm, sympathetic and selfless friends, caregivers and even family members, but they are not. Their goal is solely to obtain the elder’s assets and money or to use such for their own benefit rather than their the elder’s.

 What Can You Do to Prevent Undue Influence?

Family, neighbors, friends and professionals who come in contact with older people can help in a variety of ways.  You can check in with the elder on a regular basis to ensure that their health and nutritional needs are being properly addressed.  You can try to keep the elder socially involved with others.  It is crucial that the elder maintain their relationships with those they have been close to for a long time.  You can try to discuss the situation directly with the elder outside of the perpetrators presence.

What Should You Do if You Believe Someone has been Subjected to Undue Influence?
Your first step should be to check in with the elder’s family members, close friends and other caregivers or medical providers.  Family members often do not realize that their elderly relative is being subjected to undue influence or financial exploitation until it is too late.  You can (and should) report suspicions of financial abuse or exploitation via undue influence to the appropriate elder services authority which will begin an investigation and may prevent financial ruin or at least bring a halt to the elder’s suffering or exploitation.

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