Janice Lloyd, USA TODAY
Lidia Coito, 90, says she had no reason not to trust Rita Wynegar, her great-niece. When Wynegar told her in 2006 that the company managing Coito's money was overcharging, Coito fell for it, and gave Wynegar control of her finances, which her husband had managed until he died in 2002.
But Coito, like many elderly people, was too trusting - and was taken in.
In October, Wynegar pleaded guilty to theft in York County, Pa., and was ordered to repay $240,000 in restitution. Her sentencing hearing is Dec. 31.
Financial scams abound around the holidays, and it's long been known that the elderly are more vulnerable.
Now, scientists are learning why: New research suggests age-related changes in the brain make it harder to detect suspicious body language and other warning signs that people may be untrustworthy.
The prevalence of the crime has already reached epidemic proportions, according to Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, and will continue to grow as the Baby Boomers age. Financial exploitation of the elderly - from telemarketing scams to identity theft, fake check scams and home repair fraud - costs an estimated $3 billion annually, she says, a 12% increase from 2008.
About 55% of it is perpetuated by a family member, Markwood says. "It's not usually the close children, but the removed relative. And what they tend to do is try to isolate the older person, so no one can see what is going on.''
In Coito's case, the York County Area Agency on Aging got an anonymous tip. The agency's adult protective services division started an investigation when they heard Coito was about to be evicted from her assisted-living facility because her bill hadn't been paid for months.
"We hope during this holiday season families will check in with their older relatives to be sure their finances are in good order and in good hands,'' says Markwood. The Eldercare Locator can guide people on how to find help on elder-abuse prevention of all kinds.
The new brain research, published Dec. 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds older people, more than younger adults, may fail to interpret an untrustworthy face as potentially dishonest. The study, led by Shelley Taylor, a professor of psychology at UCLA, was funded by the National Institute on Aging.
"Many people think this problem exists because the post-war generation is more trusting than other generations,'' says Taylor. "They may very well be more trusting, but what we've discovered is this is based on neurological changes. The Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials are all going to face this as they age."
Taylor and her team conducted two studies. In the first, 119 adults ages 55 to 84 and 24 younger adults looked at 30 photographs of faces and rated them on how trustworthy and approachable they seemed. The faces were intentionally selected to look trustworthy, neutral or untrustworthy, based on body language (eyes averted downward, for example).
Both groups reacted very similarly to the trustworthy faces and to the neutral faces. However, when viewing the untrustworthy faces, the younger adults reacted strongly, while the older adults did not. The older adults saw the faces as more trustworthy.
The second study included 44 participants: 23 people ages 55 to 80 and 21 younger adults. It was conducted at UCLA's brain mapping center, where participants got functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans while looking at the faces.
The researchers studied the response in the anterior insula of the brain, an area Taylor says is used for assessing risk. It's the area of the brain that gives you the warning, "Uh-oh,'' she says, and gut feelings that "something is not right here." The younger adults showed anterior insula activation both when they were making the ratings of faces and especially when they were viewing the untrustworthy faces.
The older adults displayed very little anterior insula activation during these activities, the authors write.
"We wanted to find out whether there are differences in how the brain reacts to these faces, and the answer is yes, there are,'' Taylor said. "The response is much more muted among the older adults."
Mara Mather, a professional of gerontology at the University of Southern California-Davis, has done several studies on the effect the aging brain has on outlook. She has found that older adults have a diminished ability to process negative stimuli, compared with younger adults.
In other areas of life, these neural changes can have a benign affect, Taylor says, and can lead to a sense of improved well-being.
But when it comes to knowing whether to trust someone, there's trouble, she says. Her father and aunt were both targets, she said, and both lost money in scams. Her father was in his mid-70s at the time and "was walked to the bank by someone he referred to as 'such a nice man.' He gave him $6,000.
"I still don't know how my father didn't pick up that this was not a nice young man,'' Taylor says.