Val Farmer: Why, how family members financially exploit elderly

Mark Twain once said, "You never know who your friends are until you share an estate with them." One-third of the cases of financial exploitation of the elderly are due to undue influence being exercised by a family member or caregiver.

Mark Twain once said, "You never know who your friends are until you share an estate with them."

One-third of the cases of financial exploitation of the elderly are due to undue influence being exercised by a family member or caregiver. It is tragic when family members exploit bank accounts, deeds, trusts and wills of their parents at the expense of a lifelong rupture of relationships with siblings and their families.

These situations are most likely to occur when a family caregiver:

- Has inadequate checks and balances with regard to the parents' finances.

- Is experiencing significant financial pressure and/or personal problems.


- Justifies his or her manipulations by self-satisfying rationalizations regarding past resentments and injustice, feels a sense of entitlement, overvalues their contributions and/or minimizes consequences to the victims.

Pathways to undue influence. Psychologist Ira Daniel Turkat from Venice, Fla., has developed a three-part theory of how "undo influence occurs.

1. Predisposing factors. Certain characteristics make an individual susceptible to being successfully manipulated. Some of these include:

- Death of a spouse. A person with a history of being highly dependent on his or her spouse for key decisions, the death of that loved one leaves a significant void.

- Depression. When individuals become depressed, they not only experience intense negative feelings, they may also suffer from poor mental functioning, lack of energy, apathy and social withdrawal. These factors make the depressed person more susceptible to abandon efforts that require significant thought and/or action. In turn, this increases his or her vulnerability to the influence of another.

- Isolation. Physical or social isolation from family and/or friends can make the elderly parent more vulnerable to manipulation.

- Social attention. An elderly parent with a strong need for attention is at a greater risk for manipulation, particularly when he or she is lonely or socially isolated.

- Anxious-ness. Anxiety is unpleasant. Accordingly, a family caregiver who can reduce the parent's anxiety is likely to become highly valued.


- Dependency. Those who become dependent on others for physical assistance become prone to manipulation by their caregivers. Strong dependence can also develop for mental stimulation, social connectivity and emotional attachment. The more dependent the individual becomes, the more vulnerable he or she is to the desires of the family caregiver.

- Diminished mental capacity. Various mental functions can deteriorate in effectiveness, particularly with age. When someone has diminished mental capacity but is not aware of it, the risk for being exploited increases significantly.

2. Nurturing vulnerability. When a family caregiver becomes motivated to exploit their position of influence for financial gain, they often use these methods:

- Increasing dependency needs. As the need for assistance increases, the opportunities for exploitation multiply. Dependency is deliberately cultivated through extreme helpfulness, friendliness and meeting social needs.

- Relationship poisoning. Relationship poisoning occurs when the family caregiver unjustly undermines another person's relationship with other family members. Attacks on other family members can be direct or indirect.

- Self-promotion. The family caregiver identifies and performs tasks that the vulnerable parent finds difficult or troublesome. This is accompanied by frequent reminders of how valuable the service he or she is providing.

- Restricting access. A family caregiver may deliberately restrict his or her parent from interacting with friends, siblings, relatives and/or others who threaten the success of his or her manipulations.

- Reinterpreting events. A vulnerable parent's emotions can also be manipulated by merely changing the way certain events are explained.


- Inactive relatives. Other family members may be unaware that any manipulations are taking place or are suspicious but unable to clearly document the problem.

3. Execution of undue influence. To execute the desired financial exploitation, the family caregiver seizes the "right" moment to steer the parent to take action. The family caregiver determines the time to strike when the parent's trust, dependency or submissiveness will make them amenable to comply with redirecting their assets.

- Taking advantage of a particular mental state. The caregiver uses his or her knowledge of when the parent is most vulnerable.

- Increasing the vulnerable parent's discomfort. If enough discomfort is created, relief is offered to the parent if he or she goes through with the financial transaction.

- Pressuring the client. The family caregiver "pushes the buttons" of his or her parent by creating an atmosphere of urgency, anger, guilt or fear.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A parent vulnerable to potential exploitation is best protected when cared for by those with genuine concern for his or her well being and who have no agenda to extract additional benefits.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, .

What To Read Next
"It’s easy to make assumptions about a person based on their outfit or their day job," Coming Home columnist Jessie Veeder writes. "I mean, my dad used to work in a bank and he also broke horses and played in a bar band at night."
This week, gardening columnist Don Kinzler fields questions on hibiscus plants, beating apple trees and how long grass seeds will last.
Columnist Carol Bradley Bursack explains the differences between Alzheimer's, dementia and other common forms of dementia.
If it plays well in Winnipeg, it’ll be a hit in Fargo, and all points within planting distance.