Undue Influence

The crime of undue influence happens all the time, leaving families stressed and worried – and the victim (usually Mom or Dad) can end up penniless and estranged (or even moved and hidden) from what was previously a loving and close family.

It is one of the hardest crimes to prove and it’s equally hard to get help or hold the abuser accountable.   Consequently, all can be lost – new powers of attorney and wills can be drafted and to make matters even worse, Mom or Dad can be gaslighted to stubbornly agree with their exploiter and thus turn on their family.

The EARN Project (Elder Abuse Reform Now) advocates for strong elder abuse laws to protect our treasured elders from all forms of financial exploitation.

The following article from EARN’s Silver Standard will strike a chord with anyone who has experienced the devastation of undue influence within their family.

It explains how easily it can happen to a person who is vulnerable but may appear – at least to family and friends – to be strong.

NASGA is pleased to post EARN’s article on our website.

On August 23, 1973 Jan-Erik Olsson pulled a loaded submachine gun and fired at the ceiling of a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. After wounding a policeman, Olsson and a partner took four bank employees hostage, herding them into a bank vault.

He then quickly established a first-name relationship with the hostages and, over a period of six days, swung back and forth between threats of physical harm and acts of thoughtfulness, created an atmosphere where the hostages’ fear of and reliance on their captor resulted in a reaction now referred to as Stockholm Syndrome.

The robber’s benevolent acts curried the sympathy of his hostages. “When he treated us well,” said one hostage, “we could think of him as an emergency God.” They began to fear the police more than their captor. One hostage called the Prime Minister and pleaded with him to let the robbers take her with them in the escape car, saying that she fully trusted him and she feared that the police “…will attack and cause us to die.”

Once the robbers were captured, the hostages embraced, kissed, and shook hands with them. One shouted to the handcuffed criminals, “…I will see you again.” Some days later, one asked a psychiatrist, “Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t I hate them?” The psychiatrists explained that their experience was similar to that of a shell-shocked POW—the hostages had become so emotionally indebted to their abductors that they began to see the abductors, rather than the rescuers, as their saviors.

Just think, four people—all young, healthy, and in complete control of their faculties—and every one of them was totally brainwashed over a period of just six days…six days.

A great deal of financial elder abuse comes through deception and undue influence very similar to this sort of brainwashing,. It most often takes place in locations where there are no witnesses to step in. Usually, it starts out clothed in a velvet glove, but it ends all too frequently in tragedy—and even violence and death. It comes from family, bankers, lawyers, financial advisors, helpful neighbors, tradesmen, housekeepers, caregivers, and total strangers.

Most of us know a woman in her 70’s or early 80’s—a mother whose husband of many years, the person who dealt with home repairmen and almost all financial decisions, is now gone. One who has begun to find more and more of her friends names showing up on the obituary page, and others who can no longer drive. One whose children live hectic lives with children, grandchildren, and jobs. And the winter weather keeps her at home and alone too much.

A couple of friends may be trying to get her to follow their move to sunny Florida. She is in excellent health, she has all her wits about her, and her kids have been worried about the direction her life has been taking, so everyone decides Florida is just the answer

Things look good—she found a nice house to buy, the kids talk to her every few days and are delighted to hear she has landed next to a lovely couple who drop in every few days to make sure she is OK and offer to do her shopping at the same time they do theirs.

The neighbor husband says she does not need to hire someone to mow her tiny lawn—he is happy to do it when he mows his own lawn.

When she is not feeling well, the wife recommends a doctor, takes her there, and then brings her soup for the next few days.

Soon, she is frequently receiving gifts of homemade meals and flowers from their garden.

Her roof springs a leak and he offers to deal with the roofing man for her and, when she writes the check for the work, he mentions that he has a nephew who is very good at helping seniors increase their income.

The nephew is a lovely young man. But, she thinks she will just keep this to herself and not tell her children. “They always think I’m helpless… wait until they see how much money I make,” she thinks.

The neighbors take her to a social club, and for the first time in a long time she is with a group of people laughing and dancing and enjoying themselves. A very nice man asks her to dance. He’s a little younger than she but later he calls and asks her out to dinner. He brings her gifts—he’s a bit flirty—it feels so good—she’s alive again.

The seduction has begun.

Or perhaps it’s a widower in his 60s. He married his high school sweetheart. Though life gave them some bumps in the road from time to time, they were a team, they always got through it together. Now he has sold his business for a very healthy sum, or retired with a good pension, and they are going to do all the things they could not do while busy raising children and building his business. Then, disease killed all those dreams. Now, he is alone without the one who always had his back and who had always been there to bring sunshine into a grey day.

At first, friends made sure to keep him busy, but months go buy and that dwindles off. He has lunch with his retired friends, and plays golf as often as weather allows. He has taken to going to movies in the afternoon—not much fun alone.

He can never find anything he is looking for; he keeps forgetting to renew his prescriptions, he ran out of clean shirts and can’t find the name of the laundry. Some nights he eats at a restaurant alone, others he stops by the Chinese take-out or that pizza place they had both liked, or he gets one of those delicious roast beef sandwiches they always ordered from their favorite deli.

When he gets home, the lights are off—it’s so quiet. She always had music playing. He opens his sandwich, gets himself a drink, and settles into his cozy chair. The sandwich doesn’t taste as good as it used to. He turns on the news, but there is no one to discuss it with, and it’s all the same old same old anyway so he turns it off. He settles in with a book—it’s so quiet.

After a few months, he hires someone to take care of the housework. Her resume is impressive. She is working to support her unwell mother while trying to save enough to go to go back to college—It’s also nice to have someone around who is always interested in what he has to say.

She makes things he likes to eat and brings them to him as a surprise. Soon she is cooking dinner for him. She seems to always know just where everything is. He has clean shirts, his meds are always at the bedside, dinner is hot and delicious—almost as good as his wife’s. She is young yet she finds his conversation fascinating. She tells him he is much more interesting than men her age. She tells him, to look at him, no one would believe he was in his 60s.

Now, the lights are on when he gets home—it’s no longer quiet, and there is someone there who finds him attractive and interesting.

The seduction has begun. It may take more than six weeks, but it won’t take long.

Margaret Singer, Ph.D. (1922–2003) was a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a nationally renowned expert on cults and brainwashing. In the 1990s doctor Singer, by that time a senior citizen herself, turned her attention to the problem of undue influence in elder abuse, saying, “People who are clearly competent from a legal and psychological standpoint are making decisions that just don’t make sense to us. Undue influence seems to offer an explanation… People use their roles to exploit the trust, dependency, and fear of others…They use this power to deceptively gain control over decision making.”

I am a good example of a tough old bird who wants to help the other old birds see to it that their roofs and swings and cages don’t get stolen.

~Margaret Singer

Obtaining frequent access to a senior citizen provides an abuser with an opportunity to censor mail and, using all manner of excuses and explanations, reduce outside contact and visits, especially from family and close friends. With comments from the abuser, the senior begins to feel they have been brushed aside by loved ones and makes it easy for the abuser to convince the senior that they are the only one who really care about them. According to Doctor Singer, they frequently start to infantilize the senior, or over medicate them, and soon the older person feels totally dependent on the abuser. She says they create a “siege mentality” similar to the brainwashing of captives and hostages. They terrorize seniors into believing that only they can protect them from being removed from their home and placed in an institution or from having all their possessions and means of support taken from them. Some use what are commonly called “gaslighting” techniques, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, and weakening their self-esteem. They also frequently use reduction of food as a weapon. Both fear and nutritional deprivation will incapacitate even the most intelligent person, let alone an elderly person who is beginning to experience a feeling of helplessness, abandonment by those they love, and distrusting their own memory. Or, worse yet, they have been convinced their loved ones are plotting against them, which often results in the victim identifying with the abuser and rejecting those who love them and are trying to save them.

In the documentary The Unforgivable Truth, produced by The Silver Standard, you can hear a very distressed mother screaming at her daughter to go away because “Don says you can’t be here”—even though Don has her living in a dirty house, sleeping in filthy sheets, without regular healthy home-cooked meals, cut off from the daughters with whom she has always been very close, and clearly terrorized. All of this is the absolute opposite situation from that which she enjoyed under the protection of her loving daughters. Yet, she is rejecting the daughters. In the end she died alone in that dirty bed.

Dr. Singer stresses the importance of remaining actively involved in the life of loved ones who are elderly. Do all you can to keep them in a position where the possibility of their falling victim to brainwashing or undue influence is greatly diminished.

Make sure they have plenty of mental stimulation.

Visit as often as you can.

Call frequently—it does not have to be a long conversation, just check in a couple of times a day to let them know you love them.

Arrange visits from friends or individuals from their religious organizations.

Make sure they eat three nutritious meals a daily …stock their freezer.

Make sure that any dentures fit properly so eating is not a problem.

Make sure a log is kept of medication intake.

Make sure their eyes are examined regularly.

Make sure they have the proper lenses in their glasses.

Make sure their hearing is checked regularly and hearing aids provided if necessary.

Make sure they have books on tape if reading is not possible.

Make sure they have both a radio and a TV.

If possible, arrange to have them taken to a senior center, church group, or social organization once or twice a week.

If possible, make arrangements for them to participate in bridge, or other game, book, or Bible study groups.

If they are fragile, have the mail sent to your office or a lawyer’s office, and do it before they get to a point of being vulnerable to anyone who might have inappropriate motives.

If a home health care worker, or anyone else, tells you they are too ill for you to visit, drop in anyway—take some bright flowers—you don’t have to stay long

It is best to do everything possible to prevent the situation from happening in the first place. However, sometimes a close relative or friend can step in and save the senior. But that is only if the abuser is not also a guardian—which is all too often the case.

When you have a loved one who is clearly in decline, gather family and discuss guardianship by family members before a stranger, family services, or the court system gets involved.

One by one each of us can try to protect those we love, but the instances of elder abuse in this country, especially financial elder abuse, are growing at an alarming rate. A shocking number of American seniors, who should be enjoying their golden years, are suffering and dying from the tragic circumstances of elder abuse.

In the end, no matter how hard individuals try to prevent it or stop it once it has begun, elder abuse will only become a sin of the past when every state makes the penalties for abusing a senior so harsh that it’s not worth taking the chance.

Note: Much of the information on Dr. Singer was taken from a 1996 interview by NCPEA