WEDNESSDAY, Aug. 6, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- As many as one in 20 older adults in the United States may be financially exploited, a new study suggests.
In fact, most older adults have had their money or property stolen or used improperly at some point, the researchers found. What's worse is that this abuse often occurs at the hands of their relatives.
Although financial exploitation is the most common form of elder abuse, it has not gotten the scrutiny it deserves from doctors, policy makers and caregivers, the researchers concluded. The findings were published Aug. 6 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
"Financial exploitation of older adults is a common and serious problem, and especially happens to elders from groups traditionally considered to be economically, medically and socio-demographically vulnerable," Janey Peterson, of Weill Cornell Medical College, said in a journal news release.
"In addition to robbing older adults of resources, dignity and quality of life, it is likely costing our society dearly in the form of increased entitlement encumbrances, health care and other costs," she said.
Older people are particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse since they are often socially isolated or facing mental decline, the researchers noted. To more closely examine the prevalence and contributing factors of financial exploitation among older adults, the researchers interviewed more than 4,000 adults aged 60 and older living in New York state.
The study revealed that about 3 percent of those questioned reported being financially exploited in some way over the past year, and nearly 5 percent said they were victims of this type of abuse at some point late in life.
Roughly 80 percent of those interviewed had money or property stolen or misused over the past year. For just over 40 percent of the participants, this happened two to 10 times. The researchers pointed out that 9 percent of the older people questioned said it happened more than 10 times.
In some cases, the older people were forced or tricked into giving up their rights or property. Others were forced or misled into signing or making changes to a legal document.
The older people interviewed also reported being impersonated so that others could acquire property or services. Some admitted to paying for all household expenses without contributions from their family members. A small number of the participants said they were very poor and not receiving any support from family or friends.
Often -- about 60 percent of the time -- the financial abuse faced by the older people interviewed was carried out by their adult children. Friends and neighbors were responsible approximately 17 percent of the time and paid home aides were the perpetrators about 15 percent of the time.
Most often, the older people who were exploited were very poor and black, according to the study. Often, victims were living in large households without their spouse. The older people needing the most help maintaining their independence were particularly at risk for financial abuse, the researchers added. Those who need help shopping and making meals often provide others access to their finances.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides more information on elder abuse.