Adam Walker, Contributing Photographer

As Americans are living longer on average, one in 10 Americans above the age of sixty have experienced some form of elder abuse, spanning both physical abuse and financial exploitation. 

The issue is both critical and “intensely under-discussed,” per Abbe Gluck ’96 LAW ’00, founding faculty director of the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School. 

To discuss the mechanisms that cause and may help prevent abuse and fraud targeting elderly Americans, the YLS community and individuals from across Connecticut convened in the Sterling Law Building on Feb. 16 for panel discussions at an event hosted by the Solomon Center. 

The event, titled “Innovating Elder Justice: New Ways of Using Law, Medicine, and Technology to Address Abuse and Financial Exploitation in an Aging Society,” featured several panels led by lawyers and medical experts, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 as the event’s keynote speaker.

“Today we heard about impactful inventions ranging from new screening tools in emergency departments to domestic violence initiatives, to apps that send alerts to family members when unusual bank account activity is detected,” Gluck wrote to the News. “There is so much work for us to do; today’s conversation was just the beginning.”

The event began with opening remarks from Law School Dean Heather Gerken, who underscored the importance of justice for elderly people within the legal landscape. She emphasized the increasing relevance of this area of law as life expectancy continues to rise, making it imperative to address the unique legal needs and challenges faced by elderly adults. 

Gerken also spotlighted journalist Adrienne Drell LAW ’92, who attended the event, and former attorney Franklin Nitikman LAW ’66. In the 2019-2020 academic year, the Solomon Center launched the Adrienne C. Drell and Franklin W. Nitikman Elder Law Project, inspired and supported by Drell and Nitikman, aimed at exploring aging and the law through academic, experiential and theoretical lenses. Since its establishment, the program has facilitated numerous workshops and discussions addressing elder law and ageism issues.

Following Gerken’s opening remarks, Gluck highlighted the significance of the event, adding that the Law School is the first law school among the top law schools in the nation to host a conference on elder justice which she called “remarkable.” 

Gluck then posed questions for Blumenthal on the role of government in protecting elderly people, first asking what the federal government can do. 

Blumenthal stressed the importance of bipartisanship in the federal government when it comes to elder law. He emphasized the importance of the government in addressing issues of improving standards in assisted living facilities and combating fraud targeting seniors, particularly by proposing a framework for AI regulation to safeguard elderly people against online financial exploitation.

To this point, Blumenthal highlighted the Elder Abuse Prevention and Protection Act, signed into law in 2017, aimed at preventing elder abuse and exploitation while enhancing the justice system’s response to victims in such cases through data collection on elder abuse. 

Blumenthal further emphasized the vulnerability of elders and advocated for updating laws to safeguard their rights, such as reforming conservatorship laws, wherein a court appoints someone to manage the affairs of a minor or incapacitated person. 

He then discussed the need for oversight in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, pointing out that such oversight is often left to states, leading to significant variations in the quality of services provided from state to state. He advocated for enhanced federal oversight, encompassing rigorous inspections, to mitigate discrepancies in state standards and ensure accountability across facilities.

 “I think transparency and oversight in the federal government can play great roles,” Blumenthal said. 

Blumenthal also addressed the intersection of elder abuse and domestic violence, particularly concerning gun violence. He outlined efforts to strengthen gun safety laws, including measures to remove firearms from individuals deemed dangerous, especially in cases involving protective orders. Blumenthal cited the need for temporary protective orders to effectively separate individuals from firearms during high-risk periods, emphasizing the importance of timely intervention in preventing domestic violence-related gun violence. 

“First of all, as Dean Gerken outlined, more people are becoming older, living longer. That’s a good thing. There are also more people who are older and living together as intimate partners, and that’s also a good thing,” he said. “But intimate partner violence is a major cause of death in America.” 

A case currently before the United States Supreme Court, United States v. Rahimi, holds significant implications for the government’s ability to restrict firearm ownership for individuals under domestic violence-related restraining orders. If the Court rules in favor of Rahimi, it could potentially limit states’ authority to prevent domestic abusers from possessing and using guns. 

Following Gluck and Blumenthal’s discussion, the event transitioned into two panels dedicated to exploring various aspects of elder justice. The first panel focused on the factors that often lead to elder abuse, highlighting how ageism can contribute to overlooking signs indicating such abuse. In the second panel, the conversation shifted to exploring approaches for addressing and preventing the exploitation of elderly people, particularly through the intersection of law and technology. The panelists in both sessions spanned a diverse set of backgrounds from lawyers and medical professors to elder fraud experts.

“Why are people stealing from older people, especially older vulnerable people? Because that’s where the money is,” said panelist Liz Loewy, co-founder of financial fraud prevention company EverSafe and former chief of the Elder Abuse Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. 

The event concluded with closing remarks by David Owen, a staff writer at the New Yorker, who was introduced by Eugene Rusyn LAW ’17, an associate research scholar at the Solomon Center. Owen finished the discussion by sharing a personal account of his mother’s experience falling prey to a scam in 2018, which he also wrote an article about in the New Yorker. Despite her age and previous strokes, he said his mother was still diligent and suspicious when it came to potential scams. Yet, he said, she still ultimately was a victim of a scheme involving fake cash prize winnings from the Publishers Clearing House. Despite efforts to report the fraud, including filling out confusing online forms and contacting law enforcement agencies, the responses were largely ineffective, he said.

Overall, Owen reflected on the challenges in raising awareness about elder fraud. Despite increased efforts from companies and agencies to warn about scams, according to Owen, contradictory messages and the complexity of reporting mechanisms create barriers for victims like his mother to seek help. He emphasized the urgent need for improved accessibility in reporting mechanisms and underscored how elder fraud might be more common than the statistics say.

“I don’t think we have any idea [of the magnitude of scams against the elderly] because I know from emails that I received after I wrote this article that there are lots and lots and lots of people who fall for these things and relatively few of them are reporting,” Owen said.

The World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is commemorated every year on June 15.

Adam Walker covers Yale Law School for the University desk. Originally from Long Island, New York, he is a sophomore in Branford College double majoring in Economics and American Studies.