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The Vulnerability of the Aged

There’s a weird story developing here in New York involving charges that Brooke Astor’s son is robbing her blind while failing to provide her with proper care.

Mrs. Astor is very, very old — 104 — and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago. She’s also quite wealthy (though less so, her grandson alleges, now that her son is stripping the artwork from her Park Avenue duplex and taking millions from her). She’s the widow of Vincent Astor, whose father, John Jacob Astor, died on the Titanic. The Astor family, if you’re familiar with Edith Wharton novels, was one of a few families at the pinnacle of New York society when that was all that mattered. Through much of her life after marrying into the family (and in particular after her husband died, leaving her a philanthropic foundation to run), she was an active philanthropist and socialite, regularly turning up to dedications, fundraisers and events until the age of 100 and giving away millions and millions of dollars.

But in the past few years, her grandson alleges, his father took advantage of Mrs. Astor’s condition to steal from her while neglecting her care. Just how isolated a person who has servants can be is one of those imponderables, but the servants likely keep their mouths shut to keep their jobs — and to make sure they can keep an eye on this frail old woman (a woman who identified herself as Mrs. Astor’s cook told reporters gathered outside the building, “I think it’s great that the truth has finally come out”).

It’s sobering to realize that even money and social connections can’t protect you should you become old, frail, and disoriented. And in some ways, Mrs. Astor is very average:

Whether it takes the form of neglect, physical or emotional abuse, or financial exploitation, elder mistreatment is an emerging problem as the population ages, experts say. If the allegations are true, Mrs. Astor, who is 104, would fit the profile of the average victim: a woman, more often than not white, and among the oldest of the old. Indeed, advocates for the elderly said yesterday the accusations were an example of a problem that has been largely hidden, particularly when, as in this case, they involve another family member.

The very elderly tend to be hidden away from the world, relying on their families for care; the potential for abuse is magnified when there is a loss of control over financial affairs:

The broad outlines of Mrs. Astor’s failing health and the concerns about her care suggest that neither money nor family can necessarily insulate the elderly from the vicissitudes of aging.

She lost control over her everyday affairs, faded from view and has been largely confined to her Park Avenue apartment for the last few years. There her care is overseen by her only child, Anthony Marshall, and her grandson Philip Marshall charges that her living conditions are bad enough to cause him to seek to have his father replaced as his grandmother’s guardian.

Lorraine V. K. Coyle, a Bronx lawyer who specializes in cases involving the elderly, said the allegations suggest that no one is secure from mistreatment. “It makes me tremble,” she said. “What does it mean for people who don’t have those assets?”

As bad as nursing homes can be, they are at least subject to regulation. Family members who are caring for their elderly relatives don’t have any oversight. Moreover, they may be perfectly well-intentioned but just not equipped to provide adequate care. And if they are put in charge of the financial affairs of a relative, the temptation to make sure they get something out of it can be great.

Financial exploitation, he said, “is most likely to occur when you have a sizable estate when the temptation for self-dealing may be greater because they’re concerned that the assets are going to be lost and not inherited.”

Another expert, Dr. Gregory J. Paveza of the University of South Florida, said that often when family members have been selected as legal guardians, “the court’s oversight is cursory at best.” The guardian, he said, “has absolute control over your life.”

It will be very interesting to watch this case developing (especially now that the tabs have gotten hold of the story — The Daily News broke it yesterday) and see what kind of light it throws on the issue of elder abuse.

One thought on

  1. Totally hoping this situation will be thoroughly investigated, but I understand Mrs. Astor’s son is 82. He may have Alzheimer’s himself and not fully understand what is going on. My Mom has Alzheimer’s to a fairly advanced degree, and I still have relatives who think she’s okay because she nods and smiles when they talk to her- they don’t notice that she doesn’t converse in any meaningful well and doesn’t know their names. Alzheimer’s patients are adept at covering up in the earlier stages, but that doesn’t mean they know what’s happening.

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