Social scientist secures grant to study elder abuse prevention

November 6, 2019 - Tony Beyers

Dr. Fei Sun, an associate professor from the School of Social Work at MSU has recently received an award from the Department of Justice to advance his research on elder abuse and neglect prevention. As principal investigator, Dr. Sun will work with two co-investigators Dr. Zhenmei Zhang from MSU Department of Sociology and Dr. Xia Wang from School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University to develop and test the efficacy and effectiveness of a financial abuse prevention model for elders with cognitive decline living in rural Michigan. This three year project has a budget of $590,000.

Dr. Sun’s work in elder abuse and neglect prevention has received support from the state aging department, which has laid the solid foundation for the success of this proposal. The Prevent Elder and Vulnerable Adult Abuse, Exploitation, Neglect Today (PREVNT) is an initiative launched in 2015 by the Aging and Adult Services Agency of the Michigan Department Health and Human Services, aiming to leverage statewide efforts to reduce abuse and neglect among vulnerable adults in Michigan. Dr. Sun has received funding in two consecutive years in 2017 to 2018 and developed education materials including six video clips to raise awareness and knowledge among elders with mild cognitive impairment, dementia family caregivers and service professionals. The video clips of these training can be found via YouTube.

Nationwide, about 5% of American elders experience some form of financial abuse in their lifetime. Though the exact estimate of loss due to financial abuse is lacking, the estimated range from $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion a year is huge. The average loss estimated per victim was $34,200 by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protective Bureau.

"Through this project, we hope to develop a multi-level intervention that can effectively prevent and respond to financial abuse of the vulnerable older adults in rural Michigan and beyond," stated Dr. Zhenmei Zhang

Individuals with cognitive impairment, especially elders, are prone to be victims of fraud and abuse. In 2019, there are about 5.8 million elders living with dementia in the U.S., and among them, approximately 190,000 live in the state of Michigan and many more with cognitive impairment without a diagnosis. Among 5,415 Michigan APS financial abuse cases in 2018, slightly more than half or 2,644 cases involved a person with cognitive impairment. Most of them live in rural counties in Michigan. Programs and services for abuse prevention in rural communities are limited and difficult to access.

The prevention model proposed in this DOJ project is grounded in an adapted routine activity theory and will address risk factors for financial abuse at individual, family and community levels. This project will test the interventions in the Battle Creek, Manistee, and Marquette areas of Michigan using a randomized controlled trial design. Elders and family caregivers in the intervention groups will receive psychosocial group education and case management in person for the first three months, and thereafter by phone. Community financial abuse prevention caseworkers (PC) will deliver group education and case management services. Those in the control group will receive standard information and referral. Service professionals in the intervention group will receive group training to increase their awareness and capacity to report to and interact with financial, legal, and adult protective services charged to deal with financial abuse.

Three community agency partners in this project are Region 3B Area Agency on Aging in Battle Creek, Human Services Collaborative Body in Manistee, and the Upper Peninsula Commission for Areas Progress (UPCAP) in Marquette. Their strong support from the aging service network will ensure the efforts needed for a successful implementation of this project. Results of this project will bring impact in the community and be useful for program design for rural elders nationwide.

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