October 6, 2001
Letter to the Editor
Red Oak Express
2012 Commerce Drive
Red Oak, IA 51566
I would like to provide information to the Red Oak Community about a serious, yet too often unrecognized, form of dependent adult abuse. I am sharing this information because of what appears to be a lack of understanding on the part of some local officials as to the symptoms of such abuse and the criteria by which to evaluate dependency. I am also sharing this information because it is a taboo subject, and insofar as it is taboo, it has the potential to devastate families when authorities appear unwilling to carefully and fully investigate its existence.
The form of abuse that I am referring to is sometimes known as “undue influence,” and its manifestations are far more subtle, but nonetheless insidious, than those of physical abuse. In other words, the manipulative behavior is not apparent on the surface of relations. What happens in such cases is that an elderly person is deliberately isolated from family members and neighbors through a variety of methods. Part of the process of isolation entails manipulating the person to believe that family members are threats to her welfare, financial or otherwise.
Family members may be demonized to the point that the perpetrator gains the consent of the person in keeping them away. This is known by psychologists as the “siege mentality,” which operates by making the person fearful of her own family and then getting her to believe that the perpetrator is the only person who will protect her from those fictional threats. Once the perpetrator has fully isolated the person from her family and acquired her consent, the perpetrator will work to gain control of the person’s decision-making processes and then of her financial matters. This may include getting the person to change wills or charging for services that are either unnecessary or never rendered in the first place.
Oftentimes the perpetrator of this abuse is hired help or someone who has casual contact with the elderly person or even a family member. They will attempt to take advantage of the physical frailty and dependency of the person. Particularly vulnerable to such abuses are older widows who recently lost their husbands and who relied upon their husbands for all legal and financial matters. In such cases, the perpetrator will prey upon the loneliness, fear and emotional vulnerabilities of the widow while she is still mourning her husband. This is what makes such abuse so insidious.
All of these symptoms of “undue influence,” as well as several others, have been documented by the psychologist Margaret Singer in a variety of articles. Additionally, there are laws within the State of Iowa specifically intended to protect elderly people against this particular form of abuse. As such, it should be the duty of those within both the governmental and legal professions to acknowledge, identify and work to terminate this form of abuse when it occurs. To not do so, is simply unconscionable.
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