Abstract: Financial Exploitation Among Older Adults: Qualitative Study of University Law Clinic Clients (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Financial Exploitation Among Older Adults: Qualitative Study of University Law Clinic Clients

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Gaurav R. Sinha, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL
Christopher R. Larrison, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL
Matthew Andres, JD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Objective: Between 2.7% and 6.6% of older adults lose approximately $109 million of personal wealth to financial exploitation each year. One out of every 44 cases of financial exploitation involving older adults goes unreported for various reasons including limited access to legal services. The Elder Financial Justice Clinic (EFJC) at the University of Illinois attempted to address this issue by providing free legal services to older adults who were financially exploited. The primary objective of this study was to explore the consequences of financial exploitation and to understand how the EFJC’s services matched the needs of older adults who were victims.

Methods: Individual face-to-face interviews were conducted with 22 of the 66 EFJC clients (33.4%). All participants were over the age of 65. A semi-structured interview guide was utilized. It consisted of three questions about the financial exploitation experienced and EFJC services received. The interviews lasted approximately 1.5 hours and were taped. The transcribed narratives were analyzed using QDA Miner, a mixed methods and qualitative data analysis software developed by Provalis Research. Gioia methodology, a dialogical inductive qualitative analysis process, was applied to obtain categories and themes from the interview data.  

Results: The mean age of respondents was 74 years. Mostly respondents were female (60%) and white (77%). Forty-three percent of the respondents had annual incomes of less than $15,000. Another 38% had annual incomes less than $50,000. Median monetary loss was $12,500.

Six aggregated dimensions were identified. 1) Clients’ Predispositions: Clients demonstrated a wide range of behaviors after discovering they were financially exploited. For example, some did not gather details about the financial exploitation while others proactively collected and stored evidence of the exploitation.  2) Clinic’s Services: 84% of clients did not receive a financial settlement, but 73% felt the EFJC assisted in a favorable resolution of their legal case. Clients reported that the clinic enhanced their legal knowledge regarding financial exploitation. The legal staff also provided intangible psychological support and a space to share traumatic experiences. 3) Impacts of Exploitation: Clients were stressed, angry, and developed feelings of distrust. Clients also shared a loss of hope and confidence in themselves. When the proportion of loss to assets was high, regardless of the dollar amount lost, the experience of exploitation created uncertainty about future financial independence. 4) Negative Coping Strategies: Self-blaming was a universal feeling among clients. Some clients also believed in “karma” and that perpetrators would pay in the future.  5) Social Network: For a variety of reasons clients’ social networks (i.e. family and friends) were generally not helpful emotionally or financially. 6) Support Barriers: Clients showed frustration with the legal system and societal apathy towards older adults.

Conclusions and Implications: Law clinics that offer free services to older adults are an option, but our research suggests that clients also need psychosocial supports. While criminal or civil lawsuits are important to deal with perpetrators, trauma-based mental health interventions could prove useful to older adults coping with the loss of assets that may never be returned.