COVID-19 is introducing unparalleled challenges for older adults. In addition to being especially vulnerable to severe complications from the novel coronavirus, savings of older adults are now being targeted by well-organized predators with the aid of computer access to potential victims.
Why are older adults being targeted, and what can we do to protect them? CLBB’s Co-Founder and Co-Director, Dr. Bruce Price offers expert advice on elder justice during this pandemic.
As brains age, our decision-making circuitry changes too. As detailed in CLBB’s 2018 conference, “Our Aging Brains: What is Dementia? Definitions, Diagnosis, and Treatment,” experts have identified four general trajectories of aging. The fortunate 10–20% experience “Super Aging,” in which individuals have little, if any, cognitive decline. More elders experience “Normal Cognitive Aging,” which consists of some degree of age-related cognitive decline, but generally does not significantly impact daily life. Other elderly people experience “Mild Cognitive Impairment,” in which there is accelerated cognitive decline without major impairments of daily functioning. Finally, 30-50% experience Pathologic Aging, known as “Dementia,” where individuals exhibit accelerated cognitive decline with major impairment of daily functioning. Understanding the various paths of aging helps us recognize and understand differences we see in our loved ones as they grow older.
Cognitive impairments decrease a person’s capacity to make decisions. As a result, opportunists can exploit vulnerabilities in people with cognitive deficits, in particular those who are lonely, isolated from family during quarantine, and lacking access to online and in-person support resources. COVID-19 can also cause confusion, the inability to sustain a coherent stream of thought.
Aging brains respond differently to salient emotional stimuli, and older adults may be especially vulnerable to scams that trigger emotions. COVID-19 elicits fear particularly amongst older populations who are at greater risk. Intense emotions surrounding the pandemic on top of cognitive decline, isolation and loneliness make the current situation very risky.
When quarantined, older adults without Internet access will likely connect to the outside world through a family member or caretaker. Unfortunately, much of the fraudulent behavior against older adults is the result of undue influence from these trusted individuals. Given the economic downturn, it is not hard to imagine desperate relatives or caretakers tempted to prey upon an elder’s savings.
It is also easy to overlook cognitive decline to convince oneself and others that everything is fine. But we need to be vigilant. Family members, legal authorities and health care providers may erroneously conclude that complex judgement and decision-making remain intact when, in fact, they do not.
In sum, we should remain vigilant, but calm. Rather than becoming overly anxious about someone taking advantage of a loved one, stay aware and be on the lookout for these three signs of concern.
First, is the individual misspending cash or investments? Are they spending in ways that you think they would not normally spend, if they were cognitively intact? If so, it may be a warning sign and further investigation is warranted.
Second, are there signs of apathy? Apathy is one of the most common early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, evident in 70-80% of people. Apathy includes diminished interest, diminished motivation and persistence, diminished concern, withdrawal, and disengagement. These changes in cognition greatly effect one’s ability to avoid financial fraud and be cognizant of undue influence.
Third, if living alone, are normal daily tasks being completed? Do they complete normal tasks, such as food shopping, paying bills, having consistent meals, and attending their doctor’s appointments? Forgetting important newly learned information may be a sign that your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, which leaves them more vulnerable to scams. Additionally, an early sign of cognitive problems can be more frequent car accidents, specifically fender-benders, due to a decline in cognitive processing.
Amidst the chaos of COVID-19, paying attention to major warning signs and routinely checking in with our older loved ones is a good way to keep them safe and to maintain your own peace of mind.