The late Manhattan socialite Brooke Astor’s son was convicted on multiple charges of taking advantage of her frail condition in advanced old age to wrongfully take funds from her, to induce her to change her will in his favor, and to abuse a power of attorney she had given to him to assist in managing her affairs.

The Astor case has become notorious because the Astor family name has been famous since the early 1800s and because the Astor estate is estimated to exceed $170 million dollars. But the case should help to focus public attention on the fact that financial abuse of our elderly citizens has become a significant and growing problem. The insurance company MetLife has published a study which reports that about a million older Americans have been the targets of financial abuse every year.

What are the reasons for this disgraceful trend and what can be done to curtail it? Three major reasons seem obvious. One, people are living longer. Two, the last 60 years saw substantial wealth-building among a larger percentage of our population than ever before. And three, many people feel that in the same period the traditional values of honesty, thrift and socialization have taken a substantial hit.

The combination of these three factors makes a rise in financial abuse of the elderly seem almost inevitable. The last two years of financial downturn, when many fraudulent activities (like Madoff’s) tend to unravel, have made it more likely that thefts from the elderly will be discovered.

Distressingly, the guilty parties in many of these cases are close relatives of the victim. “We see a lot of cases where the kids help themselves with the intention of paying the money back. It becomes a bad habit,” one attorney who specializes in this field was quoted in Consumer Reports. An economic downturn can make it harder for the “borrower” to quietly repay embezzled funds and that is when the crime is discovered. The fact that the stealing is done by a relative also often makes it more likely for it to come out later, rather than sooner. The results can be disastrous for everyone involved, although many times the guilty parties have not been prosecuted.

The wider value of the Astor case is that the prosecutors were able to overcome the problem that financial frauds are often complex and hard to prove to a jury. But since “nothing succeeds like success,” prosecutors may decide to focus more on such crimes. In turn, that might make it more likely for other victims to come forward to complain of such possible crimes involving their finances and the people they have trusted to protect them.

Of even more wide and possible permanent significance, an item of proposed federal legislation called the Elder Justice Act (“the EJA”) has been languishing in Congress since about 2003, having been revived every year but never having been enacted into law. The EJA makes the fight against elder abuse and crime, neglect and exploitation a national priority. By combining law enforcement, public health, and social service approaches to recognize, address, and prevent elder abuse, neglect and exploitation, the EJA could make a real difference in our lives in the years to come.

Much of the EJA focuses on providing aid to local governments and private groups on the front lines in combating elder abuse. One example of what it would do is provide funds to establish Adult Protective Services in every locale (as New York City already has) to intervene in situations where adults do not seem able to protect their own interests.

The EJA was included as a section of the Senate’s health reform bill approved in October, 2009 by the Senate Finance Committee. With a single, final health reform bill approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives still to come (if at all), we have yet to see whether the EJA will survive the full legislative process, and in what condition. Some legislators and lobbyists oppose one part or another of the EJA on grounds that it is too liberal or too conservative, too “big government” or too “do-nothing”, too cheap or too generous.

Compromises may well be made. What happens to the EJA will say something about how we prioritize the problem of elder abuse. The Astor case may help us to appreciate what can happen to elderly citizens when nothing is done.

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