The recent verdict in the case concerning noted New York philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor’s son illustrates the challenging efforts to prosecute elder abuse. Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted on 14 of 16 charges of defrauding his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, in order to steal many millions of dollars from her as her disease progressed. Mrs. Astor, who died in 2007 at the age 105, changed her will in 2004 to leave to her son funds that were originally promised to charities. The central question of the trial became whether she understood what she was doing when she signed those legal papers.
The New York Times reported that elder abuse experts were watching this case closely. In fact, district attorneys’ offices in several metropolitan areas have created an elder abuse unit to specialize in these types of cases. The Astor case creates an environment that is open to prosecution of elder abuse. “It will help prosecutors understand that yes, they can successfully bring these complex and challenging cases — and this one was extremely complex and challenging,” Ms. Stiegel said in the New York Times article.
The Times also reported that elder abuse through financial exploitation steals approximately $2.6 million from the elderly annually. This study was done by the Metlife Mature Market Institute, Virginia Tech and the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. Unfortunately, this crime is believed to underreported. The National Center on Elder Abuse cites research by John Wasik published in 2000 reports that current estimates put the overall reporting of financial exploitation at only 1 in 25 cases, suggesting that there may be at least 5 million financial abuse victims each year.
I wasn’t a juror for the Astor trial, so I didn’t hear all the evidence. With that said, my thoughts about this unfortunate incident fall into two categories. First of all, I would hope that the adult children who become caregivers for a parent with Alzheimer’s would put the parent’s care at the forefront as opposed to any financial windfall. However, this was alleged not be the case in the Astor case according to a 2006 story in Newsweek: “Under the headline BATTLE OF N.Y. BLUE BLOODS!, the New York Daily News reported that Mrs. Astor's grandson Philip Marshall has gone to court to remove his father, Anthony Marshall, as her guardian. Marshall senior has been neglecting his mother's health and well-being ‘while enriching himself with millions of dollars,’ the younger Marshall alleged in court papers. ‘Her bedroom is so cold in the winter that my grandmother is forced to sleep in the TV room in torn nightgowns on a filthy couch that smells, probably from dog urine.’”
My second thought is that the medical profession needs to be intimately involved in these discussions about potential legal proceedings. This belief comes from
personal experience when a court-appointed lawyer visited with my mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, was in a nursing home, and who was already having delusions. His "interview" with her made him think she was able to make financial decisions for herself. In a phone conversation with him, I explained what I had experienced in my many interactions with my mother after her diagnosis. The lawyer didn't seem interested in what I shared. And no, the lawyer never consulted Mom's doctor or the nursing home to check on her diagnosis.
This experience makes me believe that while there is a need to protect a person who has Alzheimer's from financial elder abuse, we as a nation need to be careful about giving too much power to lawyers. The medical community who diagnosis and understand this terrible disease on a regular basis need to be part of the process to ensure that the legal profession doesn't use this as a way to line their own pockets.
Published On: October 14, 2009