At Financial Advisor magazine’s recent Invest in Women conference, I was reminded of the incredible rise, tragic fall and testamentary wishes of the benevolent Brooke Astor.
Mrs. Astor was a well-known philanthropist who, as president of the Vincent Astor Foundation, guided the distribution of over US$200 million in grants to social and cultural causes in New York City. Through various grants she supported the city’s museums and libraries, boys’ and girls’ clubs, homes for the elderly, churches, landmarks and other institutions and programs. Known as the “First Lady of Philanthropy,” she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
But as Mrs. Astor’s grandson, Philip C. Marshall, shared in his keynote address at the conference, as she aged Brooke Astor started to be exploited by her son (Philip’s father) — all when, and because, she was in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Marshall shared the shock of the realization that his own father was taking advantage of his grandmother’s compromised health, slowly siphoning off her fortune. According to Mr. Marshall, his father isolated Mrs. Astor, failed to provide coordinated care, and refused to respect her wish to spend her last days in her country house. Mr. Marshall filed a guardianship petition (which was granted) for his grandmother. After guardianship was awarded, it was discovered that her son was planning to take control of $100 million of her wealth—in what was a “scheme to defraud” as later characterized by the Manhattan District Attorney. After a six-month trial her son (and a lawyer) were convicted, sentenced, and sent to prison.
Elder financial abuse doesn’t just happen to people with millions of dollars, it happens to millions of people at all levels of wealth. Anyone can be vulnerable. With the growing wave of Baby Boomers moving into retirement with significant assets, the potential for financial abuse is rising. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, one in ten seniors over the age of 60 who live at home are currently victims of abuse.
As seniors age, they tend to become more isolated and therefore more vulnerable. According to the Citizens League in Minnesota, by 2030, more than one in five Minnesotans will be age 65 or older. A significant portion will be people without traditional family support – so-called “solos,” or people aging alone.
Solos include those who have no children, spouse or partner as well as those with family members who are not part of their support system, for whatever reason. Without a supportive infrastructure, solos are at risk for lower quality care, care that goes against their wishes and financial abuse.
As elder abuse becomes more prevalent and is discussed more openly, more resources are becoming available. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) has created a compilation of resources to help educate and protect senior investors called a Senior Investor Protection Playbook, which is incredibly helpful in identifying various abuses.
Mr. Marshall himself has now started a campaign – www.beyondbrooke.org – to help fight against elder abuse in honor of his grandmother, and he is a strong advocate in helping to evoke change.
But to solve this growing problem, we must all be advocates.
The financial services industry plays a key leadership role in curbing this trend. And as Mr. Marshall says, the industry can do so by protecting “seniors’ net worth, self-worth, and lives.” As clients age, the role of financial professionals takes on added significance due to their ability to identify changes in spending or other behavioral patterns, recognize external parties exerting undue influence, and provide education and resources related to fraudulent schemes.
At RBC Wealth Management-U.S., we’re redoubling efforts to protect our senior and vulnerable clients by having proactive conversations at all stages of their lives. Our advisors are encouraging clients to make their wishes known about whom to contact in the event that concerns arise about their condition or account. When advisors suspect diminished mental capacity or cognitive decline, help is enlisted to take protective measures to prevent financial abuse from occurring.
But this work can’t only be done within the walls of a financial advisor’s office. This is work that truly requires broad community involvement.
That’s why RBC Wealth Management is building a network with educational institutions, adult protective agencies, law enforcement, and other advocacy groups to share knowledge and leverage expertise around elder issues. It’s vital to partner with those who serve seniors outside of the financial services industry to learn how to identify other forms of abuse, too. Establishing relationships with individuals who work in these settings can often be the best form of defense to cultivate trust and create awareness among seniors, and to strengthen their circles of support to prevent financial abuse.