Elder abuse is hard to define, and it is a challenge to know how widespread it is. But it is a deeply serious problem and I recently came across two elder abuse stories worth passing on. If you are an elder care professional or an adult child caring for parents, read them carefully. And beware.

The  first is courtesy of Steve Goldberg, a Washington, D.C. investment adviser and contributing columnist to Kiplinger.com. In a recent article, Steve told the tragic story of a client in his 80s who was scammed out of $1.3 million. The client still worked and had once been a successful investor, but may no longer have the judgment he once had. You can get all the sad details in Steve’s article, but in short, this man was the victim of a very sophisticated international con.

The man had been sending money to these crooks for months, but neither his son nor his adviser knew about it until a brokerage firm called Steve to confirm a $270,000 wire transfer. Once Steve found out what was happening, he blocked the transfer, contacted the FBI, and helped convince his client to give his son power of attorney. Things could have been much worse if he had not intervened. But there is no chance the client will ever see his money again.

The lesson for adult children: Talk to your parents about finances. I know it can be a tough conversation, but it is essential. If they are no longer able to manage their investments, work with them to find help. And be sure that you or someone you trust has a durable power of attorney thatmakes it possible to take responsibility for your parent’s investments.

The second story is less clear-cut and in many ways more painful. The other day I got a call from a man whose widowed mother is becoming increasingly confused. His sister has moved in with her and, with the help of an aide, has taken on the role of caregiver. But the son was very concerned that his sister is stealing money from his mother and thought she’d be better off in an assisted living facility. He asked me for advice.

If his story is true, it is clearly a case of abuse. But there is no way for me to know exactly what is going on. One issue may be his perception of a situation involving a sister he admits does not get along with. But this man seemed sincere in his concern for his mother’s welfare. What to do?

I suggested he start by hiring a care manager to assess his mom’s physical situation. The first step is to determine whether she is safe and well cared for. If she is, I suggested he and his sister consider hiring a mediator to help sort out the financial situation.  It may be that mom is voluntarily–but informally–compensating his sister for her help. Ideally, this should be done with a formal caregiving contract, but often is not.

If mom is not safe, or if it appears her money is being stolen, this man will have to take more drastic steps. One possibility is requesting involvement from local adult and family services. Another may be a guardianship hearing, but this is almost always a nasty and painful process and should be a last resort.

Is this woman a victim of abuse? Maybe. She is certaintly caught in a difficult relationship between two siblings, and she may well be in a situation that is not in her best interest. The key is for this family to work it out in a way that assures that she is well cared for.

For more information about elder abuse, here are some useful websites: