Advocacy in the Era of the Vulnerable Adult

The concept of “vulnerable adults” became popular among the general public only a few years ago.  Prior to that it was an expression one might hear used among that small population of folk who frequented probate courts. Now it’s all the rage. 

So that’s good: People are more aware that some elders are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.  The problem is that this issue, like nearly all issues in our feel good society, has been addressed in a way that provides no meaningful relief to the affected parties.

Here’s why.

Elected officials like to pass laws – otherwise they are berated as “do nothing” politicians.  The problem is most of the good ideas for laws, if passed, would gore the ox of some special interest.  So, good ideas are proposed, lobbyists contact the special interests they represent that may be impacted, the special interests pay the lobbyists to “educate” the lawmakers, and the whole idea dies quietly.  Politicians are left feeling empty.  This reality results in great value being placed on laws that sound good but don’t hurt any special interests.

It is in this environment that our society’s recent enthusiasm about protecting vulnerable adults arose, and in this environment that the “solutions” have been crafted. So we have a lot more laws, laws requiring acceptances on financial power of attorneys, laws about more fine print disclosures on forms to establish joint accounts, and laws that prevent people convicted of certain felonies from inheriting from the people they ripped off. Sounds good, no one harmed and no special interest gored. Whew, no one can call them “do nothing politicians.”

Meanwhile in libraries, senior centers and restaurants across the state and the nation, the beat goes on.  Programs that scare seniors into buying inappropriate legal and financial products, based on misinformation and high pressure sales techniques continue unabated.  The well-oiled machines of the annuity salesman, so-called “senior advisors,” and their cohorts in the legal and financial communities continue to separate seniors from their savings. 

So, the good news is that people are now paying attention to the very real challenges encapsulated in the phrase “vulnerable adults.”  The bad news is that the concept became important through channels that mechanically simplify all concepts, and as a result, the solutions being offered are likewise simplified and largely unhelpful. The aging community needs to stay vigilant, look for opportunities to capitalize on the excitement about protecting vulnerable adults, but not fall prey to endorsing the simple solutions that have so far ruled the day.