Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Last weekend, Penn State's Dickinson Law held our annual alumni weekend, combined with a convocation ceremony for first year law students. I also happened to attend a non-law school function. In breaks during scheduled events, I had time to chat with alums and friends and by the end of the weekend, I realized there was a bit of theme to my conversations the last few days. In several of the conversations, someone described to me scenarios where an older individual had become involved with a new friend or a new caregiver, or a long-lost family member and was "allowing" that third person to take advantage of them, usually in the form of monetary gifts or "loans," that would never be repaid.
As we talked, I think we mostly agreed that one possible motivating factor for the older person was some level of fear, and not fear of the third person, but fear of being alone. The exploitive behavior was tolerated because it was apparently preferable to being alone, or worse, being compelled to living in the dreaded nursing home.
Another analysis I heard, but was less willing to agree with, was the lament, "what can you do, because X is competent and he has a right to give away his money if he wants to do so?"
In one example, the elderly person removed all of his life savings from a long-time professional money manager and placed the assets with a "new" manager, all because the new manager promised to charge "no" management fees. The new manager held no licenses or professional qualifications. A few months later, the client passed away -- and the new manager turned out to be the sole beneficiary of the estate.
In another instance, the observation about competency or capacity was made about an older person over the course of several months, even as that person became more and more entangled with seemingly opportunistic "befrienders" who were viewed as untrustworthy by others. Several weeks after the man seemed to disappear, his body was found in a shallow grave, while someone was still accessing his Social Security income. A pretty dramatic end to that story of misplaced trust.
My question: How is it that we all tend to emphasize that the older person was competent -- or appeared to have capacity -- even as there is also evidence he or she is trusting the wrong persons?
What I have learned from working with neuropsychologists is that so-called mini-mental exams used by primary care physicians do not necessarily evaluate an important, core component of capacity, a person's ability to exercise judgment in a sound way. Some screening tools tend to focus on cognitive components that are more easily evaluated through a brief exercise, such as asking the individual to perform exercises that tend to focus on short-term memory or even delayed-recall abilities. This is important because one aspect of judgment is the ability or inability to evaluate risk. Impaired judgment is viewed as an executive dysfunction or impairment, but it can exist without (or with only modest) memory impairment. Plus, impaired executive function can also be associated with lack of awareness or denial that there is a problem.
The significance of loss of executive function has been tracked by legal practitioners, such as Patterns in Cases Involving Financial Exploitation of Vulnerable Adults (2014 Michigan Bar Journal). On the important differences in screening tests used, see also Assessing Executive Dysfunction in Neurodegenerative Disorders: A Critical Review of Brief Neuropsychological Tools, published November 2017 in Frontiers in Aging: Neuroscience.