Seniors getting scammed is an incredibly common occurrence and one that creates considerable challenges for caregivers. For example, in 2014, around 1.5 million fraud complaints were reported and 29% of these came from people aged 60 or above.
The statistics are concerning and there are certainly steps that caregivers can take to help protect seniors from scams and abuse.
But, those steps aren’t always helpful and the problem is partly related to the connection between seniors, scams and the brain.
Until recently, it hasn’t been clear why seniors are so vulnerable to financial scams, especially ones that play on trust.
Yes, many seniors do lose cognitive function as they age, which may make it harder to figure out whether or not they are being scammed. Likewise, seniors may often trust family members more than they should.
Those patterns aren’t the full story though.
After all, some of the seniors that get scammed are perfectly capable in every other area. So, what’s going on?
Well, recent research suggests that there is a biological mechanism at play. In particular, seniors that get scammed have, on average, less connectivity and more atrophy in their brains.
These two areas are important. One helps people to know when something important is happening, while the other is connected to social cues.
This means there is a strong connection between seniors, scams and the brain. It may explain why seniors often get scammed even though they are capable in other areas.
The significance is easy to see.
After all, social cues are one of the key tools we use to make decisions. These cues help us figure out whether somebody is trustworthy and how we should respond to them.
Being unable to read social cues well would contribute to poor decisions, especially in cases where scams are not obvious. This issue may be particularly relevant in the case of family members, as there is already a basis for trust in place.
Research into this field is still in its very early stages, so there is much that we don’t know. Nevertheless, the outcomes of this research have important implications for seniors and for their caregivers.
In particular, the biological basis of behavior means that teaching seniors about scams may not be enough. Doing so could still help, especially as the biological mechanism doesn’t apply to all seniors.
As such, educating seniors about scams is still a critical first step.
But, if your family member does have connectivity issues in the brain, they may not be able to recognize scams, even when they are aware of the indicators.
With this in mind, it’s critical the caregivers also work to protect the senior as much as possible. Precisely what this looks like will vary depending on your situation and the degree of financial independence that your family member has.
For example, I acted as an informal caregiver for my mother-in-law for a while. She strongly wanted her independence but was also bad with money and with scams.
In our case, we found a balance where we sat down with her at the beginning of each month and worked through her budget, paying every bill we could online. Then, whatever money she had left over was hers to do with as she pleased.
Because she had no credit card, this pattern limited how much she could get scammed. The worst thing that could happen was that she spent all her money in the first few days and then had nothing for the month. But, as her bills were paid and money was set aside for food, that wasn’t the end of the world.
In our situation, the solution worked well. Still, it was only viable because my mother-in-law trusted me and my husband. That isn’t going to be the case with every relationship.
In some cases, you may find that you need to get an intermediary involved, somebody who can help the senior to see that there are genuine areas of concern.
Cutting down temptation and opportunity can also help.
While it wasn’t a scam per se, my mother-in-law had considerable trouble with mail order catalogs because many let you buy on credit and then pay the balance off. Getting credit for those catalogs is often easy but you can end up paying two or three times what an item is worth by the end.
We attempted to minimize the number of catalogs that she got to help fight this and even threw some out entirely.
But, we also found a middle ground. So, my mother-in-law agreed to just use a few specific companies and operate within the credit limit she had.
This meant there were only a few bills to work on – rather than the dozens she would have normally had.
Another approach is to keep an eye out for signs that your family member is being scammed, especially as they may not be willing to talk to you about it.
Some key indications include:
- Bills not getting paid when the senior should have enough money
- A large number of sweepstakes-like newsletters, as these can be an indication of mailing lists
- Sudden changes in financial habits or practices
- Indications of stress or concern, such as inability to sleep or a focus on watching the mail
- Indications of confusion or fear
- Unexplained changes in what the senior is willing to talk about, especially in relation to finances
- Increases in the number of unsolicited phone calls
If you can recognize the signs of a scam, it’s important to approach the situation with care and respect. People are often embarrassed about being scammed and they may not trust your intentions either.
There are key steps that you can take in the case of a scam and you can find out more information in our post on staying safe in the modern scam-laden environment.
Additionally, some seniors may still believe they are making a good decision, even if you are convinced that they are being scammed. This can make for a tough situation, especially as you may simply not be able to convince them.
Finally, in some cases, you may also need to simply step out. Doing so can be hard but it is necessary.
Finances are a tough topic in any situation – especially as people tend to be sensitive about the area. As a result, there may be little that you can say or do to help protect your family member without taking away their independence at the same time.
And, in many cases, you may not have the right to take away that freedom. After all, if your aging parent is still independent and functioning well in most other areas, they have the right to manage their own finances – even if they are doing so poorly.
This is why bailing out your parents financially isn’t always the right move nor is trying to control them. Likewise, if you have stubborn parents, attempting to protect their finances could actually make things worse, not better.
With this in mind, there is no single solution to dealing with scams for seniors.
However, being aware of how they may feel and being respectful can be significant processes. In many cases, your family member will respond well to this, especially if they do tend to trust you.