Unexpected financial victims of the opioid crisis
“‘The opioid overdose epidemic is the public health crisis of our time devastating families and communities across the United States,’ the CDC says. … In fact, the opioid epidemic is contributing to a rise in elder financial abuse, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA). And to help combat the exploitation of seniors, the NASAA recently released resource materials for investment professionals who might be the first to spot a problem.”
—“How the opioid crisis is leading to elder financial abuse,” The Washington Post
We already know the opioid crisis is ravaging the health of Americans. Opioid overdoses kill more than 130 people in the United States each day. Opioid dependency is quick to take effect. People may become dependent on the drugs as soon as three days after first using them.
But here’s another devastating, though less apparent, consequence of the opioid crisis: It has added a new dimension to the problem of elder financial abuse that typically sees older people exploited by strangers pulling online scams, or by caregivers, friends, and self-interested family members.
Pamela Teaster, director of the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech University, who has investigated the issue with her colleague Karen Roberto, has heard troubling stories about new forms of elder financial abuse.
“I would hear about family members who would take money from an elder, or isolate the elder to use the house as a launch pad for drug dealing,” she said. “Or family members who were forced to be drug mules.”
One addict (or “victim of an opioid use disorder,” as some experts consider that to be less stigmatizing) took $85,000 from his grandfather, who suffered from dementia, in part by opening credit cards and writing checks in the older man’s name.
Even short of theft or fraud, the opioid crisis may take a financial toll. Elderly people can feel pressure to raid their own retirement accounts or mortgage their houses to help family members in need of treatment. Grandparents often bear the cost of caring for grandchildren whose parents are addicted, in treatment, or incarcerated.
If the victims are fortunate enough to have professional help with their finances, these money experts are in a position to intervene. For one, they can help seniors manage the financial strain of drug treatment for family members. And they can be the first to spot warning signs of exploitation, such as unusual activity on a statement, or a new name suddenly appearing on clients’ accounts. As the Washington Post reports, the North American Securities Administrators Association is doing its part by issuing special guidelines to investment professionals.
But what if there isn’t an investment advisor keeping an eye on things? If you are a friend or family member of an older person, you should be sensitive to signs that an older person is suddenly unable to pay bills, find their possessions, or keep track of their money. Be wary if someone in their life seems to have excessive interest in, or control over, their finances.
If you do see signs of trouble, though, what can you do?
“Adult Protective Services would be the first line of defense in most states,” Teaster said. “And law enforcement as well.”
But perhaps the best way to protect a vulnerable elder is to find help for the user before addiction leads to exploitation. If you have a family member with an opioid problem, find help fast. “Get them into social services as quickly as possible,” Dr. Teaster said. “As people get more desperate, they do more desperate things.”
You can get treatment referrals and information by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357), and by visiting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website. Elderly people caring for grandchildren can find resources and support through Generations United. (If you see someone who has become nonresponsive from taking drugs, immediately call 911.)
Opioid use disorder is a public health crisis that is causing an elder financial abuse crisis. It’s up to all of us to look out for the seniors in our lives, and to help limit the effects of this epidemic.