(One of the greatest legacies of the late actor Mickey Rooney was his work in broadening the public's knowledge about elder abuse. His tragic, personal story was featured in the documentary, Last Will and Embezzlement, which is now available on DVD and is being shown at elder fraud prevention events around the country. Below is an article Next Avenue published about Last Will and Embezzlement, when the film came out.)
As a filmmaker, I find that every day on set is a day of learning. I could never have imagined, however, the huge learning curve that would come with shooting the new documentary about the financial exploitation of the elderly, Last Will and Embezzlement.
The film grew out of the financial abuse of the parents of my business partner, Pamela Glasner. I had watched as Pamela helplessly fought for justice and failed to achieve it. The failing was most certainly not Pamela’s.
A Prevalent National Crime
She suggested we make a documentary about the issue, and I readily agreed. And so, our unexpected and very emotional journey began.
What I learned as we progressed was that Pamela was far from alone. In fact, it seemed that everywhere we looked, people were raising their hand and saying, “It happened to me too.”
During a year of filming, I have met not one person who succeeded in getting justice for an elder fraud victim. (Just this week, a Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards study found that elderly Americans who are financially abused lose an average of $140,500.)
Why Elder Fraud Is Growing
There's a plethora of reasons why this devastating crime goes relatively unchecked. The biggest one is that the victim is often impaired by dementia or Alzheimer’s, unable to recall exactly what happened.
Another reason is that the elderly are reluctant to report the crime. Often the perpetrator is the only person in the life of the victim, who would rather have somebody’s company — anybody’s company — even if that interloper robs them of their entire savings. In most cases, the perpetrator is a family member, and one can only imagine how hard it is to report a crime committed by your own son or daughter. Delving into murky family finances also can make it difficult for authorities to prosecute, never mind get a conviction.
But because our society is heading toward the largest transfer of wealth from one generation to the next in history, if ever there was a time to raise awareness, that time is now.
The Painful Impact on Families
The main thing I learned through the process of making Last Will and Embezzlement is that this type of crime isn’t a case of simple theft. The wounds run deep and shatter families. In our film, Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney accuses his stepson of exploitation; one couple, Lisa and Ernie Rinard, accuse Ernie’s brother. Since this type of crime is usually perpetrated by a family member with a sense of entitlement, the rifts created within families are devastating and often irreparable.
Our film also tells the ruinous story of Sandy Jolley and Julie Keegan’s parents. A single signature taken from their father on a reverse mortgage application a month before his death from cancer — while his wife was stricken with Alzheimer’s — has left Sandy fighting to keep the home she shared with her parents.
The emotional impact of this crime is just as real as the financial one. Families are torn apart, homes are lost, and no one aside from the victims and their families seems to care. This has to change.
What You Can Do
If you are worried about a loved one who you suspect may have been defrauded, I urge you to intervene. If someone — from a caretaker to a distant relative or estranged child — has become overly involved in an elderly relative’s life, start asking questions. You may discover that this relationship is a wonderful thing. But there could also be a more sinister agenda at work, especially if this person has access to the elder's money or property. If you believe there is an immediate risk, call the police.
Our film’s website has a resources page with organizations you can turn to if you think your loved one is being swindled. We are continually adding to the list.