Now Reading
Why financial abuse of older adults in Puerto Rico is a public health issue

Why financial abuse of older adults in Puerto Rico is a public health issue

Financial exploitation of older adults in Puerto Rico is a widespread and underreported problem, and it deserves the attention of policymakers and the public alike. The fight against financial exploitation of older adults is not just a matter of protecting individual rights and dignity. It is a public health imperative.

When older adults are financially secure and free from abuse, they are more likely to remain healthy, active, and engaged in their communities. This, in turn, reduces the burden on our healthcare system, strengthens our social organization and creates a more just and compassionate society for all.

The VI Puerto Rican Conference on Public Health, recently held in San Juan, featured the official presentation of the Decennial Plan for Healthy Aging in Puerto Rico. Part of the conference highlighted the alarming prevalence of financial exploitation and fraud targeting older adults in Puerto Rico.

I attended the conference as a public health researcher at the University of Puerto Rico, and I feel compelled to use my platform to push for solutions to this exploitation of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

This silent epidemic poses a severe threat to the economic security, health, and well-being of Puerto Rico’s older population, underscoring the urgent need for a comprehensive, collaborative approach to address this critical public health issue.

In Puerto Rico, in 2023, only 124 cases of financial fraud are reported per 100,000 older adults, compared to nearly double that figure in the United States. Experts from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) suggest the number is likely much higher, with up to 96% of cases going unreported.

Puerto Rico’s rapidly aging population, often living in suboptimal conditions, are particularly vulnerable to financial exploitation, especially with the proliferation of methods and technologies that allow unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of vulnerable people, specially older women. The CFPB’s analysis reveals that older women in Puerto Rico exhibit higher rates of risk factors compared to their counterparts in the U.S., including living alone (31% vs. 26%), sensory impairments like hearing problems (16% vs. 11%) and vision problems (16% vs. 6%), and cognitive difficulties (17% vs. 8%). Additionally, 15% of older women in Puerto Rico reported not receiving medical treatment due to costs, compared to 8% in the U.S., and 11% were unsure if their home was worth more than what they owed, compared to just 2% in the U.S.

The consequences of financial exploitation are devastating for older adults’ health and well-being. Dr. Amílcar Matos Moreno, a researcher from the Carlos Albizu University in San Juan, points to migration as one of the main causes of increased vulnerability among older adults. The departure of 700,000 working-age adults in the past two decades has left an isolated, aging population lacking family caregivers. This diaspora fragments families, reduces familial support systems, and leaves many sick and elderly people without adequate care. Financial exploitation can leave victims financially ruined, emotionally traumatized, and even at risk of losing access to essential care and resources. Many older Puerto Ricans already face barriers to seeking medical treatment due to costs and have lower levels of financial literacy, making them more susceptible to financial abuse. The impact on their physical and mental health can be severe and long-lasting. The profound psychological toll of financial exploitation often leads to a loss of trust, autonomy, and overall well-being, exacerbating the already precarious situation of Puerto Rico’s isolated elderly population.

Addressing financial exploitation requires a multi-faceted, collaborative approach, as outlined in the Decennial Plan for Healthy Aging. The plan offers a framework to address the issue of financial exploitation among older adults—emphasizing the importance of education, prevention, legal protection, and improved reporting mechanisms. It also recognizes the need for a fundamental shift in how society views and values older adults, fostering a culture of respect, inclusion, and empowerment.

Experts highlighted the crucial role of family, friends, and the community in protecting older adults from falling victim to increasingly sophisticated scams. They stressed the importance of fostering a supportive community mentality to help Puerto Rico’s elderly population navigate the challenges of aging in the face of widespread outmigration of younger generations.

The VI Puerto Rican Conference on Public Health has sounded the alarm on the critical issue of the financial exploitation of older adults. The Decennial Plan for Healthy Aging provides a roadmap for addressing some aspects of this silent epidemic. But success will require the active participation and collaboration of all sectors of society.

By working together to implement the strategies outlined in the plan, and by fostering a culture of respect, empowerment, and community support for older adults, we can build a Puerto Rico where every person can age with security, dignity, and peace of mind.

© 2022 VISIBLE Magazine. All Rights Reserved. Branding by Studio Foray.