As a mother settles into retirement, she agrees to build a house for her son and daughter-in-law that includes an apartment for Mom. She signs over the house to her son and his wife, comforted by the belief they will be there to help care for her later in life.

A father notices his math skills are no longer what they were and gives his daughter a power of attorney allowing her access to his bank and brokerage accounts.

A grandson and his girlfriend move into his grandfather’s basement promising to help care for Grandpa in exchange for a place to live.

All common and seemingly reasonable scenarios until…

The son dies, and his widow evicts her mother-in-law from the very home she built for the three of them to share.

The daughter falls upon hard times and, unbeknownst to her father, starts transferring money from Dad’s accounts into her own, leaving Dad without enough money to cover his needs.

The grandson obtains access to his grandfather’s debit card and makes frequent withdrawals, spending the money on himself and his girlfriend.

These tales are just as common. What may start as well-intentioned assistance can turn very easily into financial exploitation. In some cases, the intention was bad from the start.

Financial exploitation is one of the most prevalent forms of elder abuse, and Maine is far from immune. We all know about our aging population, but why are our senior citizens so vulnerable?

For one thing, many older adults are socially isolated. The tight-knit communities of our youth, with family and friends around every corner, are rare. Adult children often live miles, hours or states away.

Cognitive decline contributes as well. Our memories and ability to perform certain functions simply become reduced as we age, a natural occurrence that can and does develop into dementia for some. Our ability to handle financial responsibilities as simple as figuring out a tip is one of the first areas affected.

Then there is the personal side. The inability to believe that the people we raised to be good, caring, decent people would do anything to harm us.

The consequences of financial exploitation are devastating. Victims can be left penniless and homeless. Since they are at the time in their lives when they use their accumulated funds to live and are no longer increasing their wealth, the ability to recover financially can be nearly impossible.

It is a problem of epidemic proportions, but we are the solution. The problem of elder abuse and financial exploitation requires a community response. We must join together to build a safety net that requires us to educate ourselves about the problem, share our knowledge, identify abuse and exploitation early and report it. We all must be part of the answer.

There is no question that family members caring for aging relatives provide tremendous value and sacrifice much. Thinking about my own family, I am not sure where my mother would be were it not for the care and compassion of my sister.

Sadly, all too often this is not the case. Even more disturbing is the fact that financial exploitation is often accompanied by intimidation, threats, forced isolation and physical or even sexual abuse.

We must join together as a community to protect our elders. After all, they are the parents, grandparents, neighbors, veterans, police officers, teachers, doctors and nurses who devoted their lives to protecting us. Don’t they deserve our protection now?

Judith M. Shaw, of Brunswick, is administrator of the Maine Office of Securities within the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. She also is co-chairman of the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention. Email at [email protected]

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