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KIHA Hosts Symposium on Financial Justice for Older Adults

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Sylvia Morna Freitas

Student Content Writer

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On March 15 2023, University of Denver’s Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging (KIHA) hosted the Colorado Older Adults Financial Justice Symposium. 

“The symposium was created to bring together partners and stakeholders who work with fraud and financial exploitation of older adults, so that we can come together in a common space to discuss how we can make more impact on preventing and supporting those who are at risk, or those who are already victims of fraud and financial exploitation,” says Jodi Catlow, Program Manager for the Paul Freeman Financial Security Program at KIHA. 

The symposium was attended by a number of organizations, agencies, and community partners from across the state of Colorado who are all concerned with the issue of financial exploitation of older adults.

The issue of financial justice for older adults is a serious one as it directly ties into the mental and physical health of older adults, in addition to their financial well-being. As keynote speaker and Director of the Paul Freeman Financial Security Program, Dr. Eric Chess outlined the relationship between these two issues in his address to the symposium. 

“Literature is clear. Financial fraud and exploitation can lead to declines in mental health. Poorer mental health can lead to being defrauded and exploited,” Dr. Chess explains. 

Mel Stafford, a Master’s in Social Work student at DU’s Graduate School of Social Work, explained one of the case-studies discussed at the symposium. 

“She was an older woman and didn’t have family members around to help take care of her and so her gardener became friends with her and began encroaching into her financial affairs. And he wound up having her sign over a percentage of the ownership of her house. He was essentially taking advantage of her dementia,” Stafford says. 

Manager Catlow and Stafford explained how many stories of financial injustice for older adults resemble this one. They also emphasized that, while “aberrant” financial decision making is a strong indicator for cognitive decline in older adults, cognitive decline is not the only factor that makes this population particularly vulnerable to financial exploitation. 

“People without dementia are also being exploited in this way, kind of preying on the vulnerability of isolation, and people wanting company. There’s a whole level of manipulation,” Catlow says. “After [the gardener] was prosecuted for taking advantage of her [the woman from the case-study] and lording thousands of dollars from her, she actually became someone who was a target of many future perpetrators. So just because you've gone through that case, once… Well, it actually makes you more vulnerable [in the] future. There were a number of perpetrators that were pursuing her following the closing of this case…. It never ends, you know? We need a high level of protection.”

The symposium was centered on finding ways to increase that level of protection for older adults through various Colorado agencies. A promising and notable solution that was introduced at the symposium was what is referred to as the Financial Vulnerability Score. Spearheaded by Dr. Chess and researchers at KIHA, the Financial Vulnerability Score would help protective agencies identify adults who are most at risk of financial exploitation. 

“We’re developing a questionnaire that can be administered to anyone, but we’re particularly focusing on older adults, where we can find out which behaviors of theirs might make them vulnerable to these predators,” Stafford says. “Everyone from cops to adult protective services workers to district attorneys thought that this was a tool that they could use in their work, and that it might help them identify people who were vulnerable to fraud.”

Catlow described that one of the key takeaways from the symposium was strengthening the already considerable interagency collaborative on this issue in Colorado. 

“Colorado is really passionate about this topic and about this problem,” Catlow says. “We’ve been talking to numerous partners since the event who have reached out to us… and we’ve been talking about how we can move forward.”

Under the leadership of Dr. Chess, KIHA and the Financial Vulnerability Score project are looking forward to working with partners in Colorado on the project’s efficient and effective implementation. 

Catlow and Stafford said the symposium was very valuable for KIHA and all the attendees. In particular, it met University of Denver’s and KIHA’s mission to be “a private university for the public good.”

“The Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging is everything to do with healthy aging, and supporting people to age well, and to live well…We want to do our part to find ways to support and protect people from being exploited and defrauded because that in turn really seriously impacts people’s well-being,” Manager Catlow says.

The symposium was a collaboration of University of Denver Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging, Colorado Attorney General's Office, Colorado Governor's Office, Denver District Attorney's Office, Denver County Adult Protective Services, Denver Police Department, Jefferson County Adult Protective Services, National Adult Protective Services Association, Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The symposium was sponsored by many more participating organizations in the Denver community. 

The events agenda and speaker biographies can be found here and here. Additionally, more information about KIHA and the Paul Freeman Financial Security Program can be found by visiting their websites: KIHA and the Financial Security Program