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by Abigail Van Buren

Aging Relatives Can Be Easy Prey for Con Artists, Thieves

DEAR ABBY: I am a geriatric psychiatrist, a physician who specializes in mental problems of the elderly as they relate to legal matters. A letter in your column from a woman concerned about her 84-year-old mother-in-law's relationship with a 58-year-old man caught my eye. In addition to your own excellent comments, two more points need to be made:

The main concerns that arise with aging parents are: 1. Does the parent have the capacity to understand and appreciate the consequences of the situation? 2. Is the parent being unduly influenced by another person?

Memory is only one part of the ability to handle personal and financial affairs. Other, equally important mental functions include the abilities to understand complex situations, to reason, plan and carry out behaviors, and to anticipate likely consequences. Problems in any of these or related areas make a person easy prey for con artists and gold-diggers.

Many people have sound minds, but are inappropriately influenced to do things that are not in their best interests. Someone who is lonely or going through a major change in his or her life is especially vulnerable. The unscrupulous thief initially promises friendship and support, then later convinces his victim to turn over money or property.

Many physicians do not know how to adequately assess the relevant mental functions. Of those who do, few have the skills or experience to apply their findings when legal proceedings are necessary. The consequences of inadequate assessment can be tragic.

For guidance and advice regarding problems of this nature, your readers should consider calling the adult protective services in their state for referral to a geriatrician or geriatric psychiatrist. Where legal issues are concerned, such as the capacity to change wills, make medical, financial or business decisions, the person's attorney should request the services of a forensic psychiatrist -- a physician who specializes in assessing behavior for legal purposes. -- BENNETT BLUM, M.D., PARK DIETZ & ASSOCIATES, NEWPORT BEACH, CALIF.

DEAR DR. BLUM: Thank you for an important contribution to this column. The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL) also has a special Committee on Geriatric Psychiatry and the Law that can refer readers to a psychiatrist in their area who has expertise in both geriatric and legal matters. The toll-free number is 1-800-331-1389.