Peter’s Principles and Our Evolving Understanding of Exploitation

I heard Dr. Peter Lichtenberg speak the other day about his research on financial vulnerability in older adults, and more specifically, how and why he developed the Lichtenberg Financial Decision-Making Rating Scale. It’s probably the fourth time I’ve heard him talk about this research – and I think it’s finally starting to sink in.

For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Lichtenberg, Ph.D. is the Director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University. He is a national expert and a true Michigan treasure.

So, at the risk of oversimplifying his work, two takeaways from his research are:

  1. Beyond Cognitive Decline.

Historically research on older adults and vulnerability to exploitation has been overly focused on linking vulnerability to cognitive impairments, and particularly age-related dementing conditions such as Alzheimer’s Diseases. Dr. Lichtenberg’s research indicates that vulnerability is as closely linked to social isolation and lack of empowerment as it is to organic conditions of the brain.

2.  Financial Capacity is an Early Victim of Cognitive Impairment.

In terms of the impact of age-related cognitive impairment and vulnerability to financial exploitation, Dr. Lichtenberg’s research concludes that financial capacity is among the first skills to be compromised in the dementing process. People can become vulnerable to exploitation even before it is clear they are cognitively impaired.

The academic community and the legal community are both evolving to address the same social problem, a problem that is exploding along with the number of persons living into the 80’s and beyond. We’re both learning.  What I love about Dr. Lichtenberg’s research is that it gives us lawyers better tools to educate judges and juries about exploitation – and to push back against the barriers to culpability that have entered into this area of the law from archaic legal concepts that are historically associated with capacity in the context of contracts, wills and trusts.   Vulnerability and incapacity are two very different things, and we need to work to elevate awareness of this distinction.

To read more about Dr. Lichtenberg’s research, click here.

To explore the Lichtenberg Financial Decision-Making Rating Scale, click here.