In my training as a psychologist, I was made very aware of just how vulnerable older adults are to hucksters, frauds, con artists, and being the target for financial abuse, as well as physical and sexual abuse. What I was not aware of is how many older white men are perpetrators who are arrested and convicted of a serious crime.

I am only now becoming aware of my own levels of ageism when it comes to admitting that I just can’t believe that old people are criminals! 

Unquestioned “Truths”

I never really questioned the statement that most crime is committed by young men. So when I looked up the statistics, I was pleased to find that this is true. Still, there was a remarkable gap in the information I was able to find on crimes committed by people over 65.

This could lead one to the conclusion that the older you get the less likely you are to commit a crime. Or, perhaps it is less likely that you will be caught and convicted. Certainly, this last assumption has proved fertile ground for Broadway shows and Hollywood movie plots.

From Arsenic and Old Lace to Moving On

What makes Arsenic and Old Lace so funny is that the lead characters are two sweet old ladies who are murdering lonely old men and burying them in the basement. Who would imagine such a thing? Of course, no crime can go unpunished.

When the show was written back in 1939, justice wasn’t quite so heavy handed as it is today. Their “sentence”, neatly wrapped up by the end of the show, is to spend the rest of their lives in a sanitarium.

A current take on this is “Moving On” (2023) with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. It looks at intent to kill, albeit it with plenty of justification, but provides karmic intervention so that the protagonist (Fonda) doesn’t have to face a murder trial.

This is a story about abuse, regret, and revenge. Great for a movie plot, but not so much for real life. And yet, abuse, regret, and revenge seem to be at the core of what is happening to Donald Trump.

The Aging Elephant in the Room

This past Thursday, March 30, 2023, elder crime hit the news with a flourish. Over the last few weeks, there has been the cat and mouse maneuvering between the Manhattan District Attorney’s Grand Jury and a 77-year-old resident of Florida with regard to a white collar crime committed several years ago.

Special consideration has been given to this crime because it involves multiple jurisdictions, persons of influence, and the key ingredient – sex. That the named defendant happens to be in his late 70s, has been completely overlooked, possibly due to other more prurient details, but I suggest because of outright ageism!

The Defendant Here is Not Unique

A quick search on the internet turns up some interesting patterns of nefarious behavior on the part of aging White males.

Donald Trump (45th President USA)Indictment77
Silvio Berlusconi (Premier, Italy)Sex and corruption77
Joseph Stalin (Dictator, USSR)Crimes against humanity74
George Ryan (Gov., Illinois)Federal racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering and tax fraud72
Bernard Madoff (Investor)Money laundering and tax fraud71
Jair Bolsonero, (Former President Brazil)Crimes against humanity68
Otto Kerner (Gov., Illinois)Corruption/Mail Fraud65
Dan Walker (Gov., Illinois)Fraud/Perjury65
Stephen Paddock (Las Vegas shooter)Mass murder64
Richard Nixon (37th President USA)Cover-up of break-in at Watergate61

Based on this sample, it would be easy to conclude that the older you get, especially if you are a white male holding an elected office (or feeling a sense of entitlement), the greater your likelihood of causing havoc!

What Is Really Going on Here?

I am going to avoid the pitfall of talking of politics here, and revert to what I know best – psychology. Two icons of social psychology, Swarthmore’s Solomon Asch and Stanford’s Philip Zimbardo, created experiments to show how easily groups of people can be manipulated into thinking and behaving in ways that seem out of character.

Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment demonstrated that we are more likely to conform than not, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. This goes a long way in explaining the throngs of MAGA folks who, without understanding what is going on, go along. We want to belong. We want to connect. We want to be included, and so we never question what Fox News and Breitbart tell us is truth. Instead, we rage and roar that this is political not criminal.

Zimbardo’s Prison experiment demonstrates what happens when we are confronted with authority being misused or abused. Even with the criticism it has received over the years, the validity of the findings can be applied as explanations for how and why phone calls were made to elected officials demanding votes be found, and social media posts were tolerated and passed as First Amendment Free Speech. Given what the experiment showed, even more remarkable was the grit and patriotism of those who withstood the pressure.

Is it Profiling or Ageist?

What conclusions can we draw from all this?  Does the list of rogues above shed any light on what it means to be male, powerful, and old?  The challenge here is to first take a look at our own ageism.

How do I see older adults? What is the image that comes to mind? Folks in wheelchairs, sitting alone and forgotten? Active adults on the golf course or cruising the Mediterranean? Elected officials working to solve problems? Saints, Sinners?

Re-Imagining Power and Aging

With aging comes experience, but not necessarily wisdom or self-reflection. With aging comes the realization that it is better to wait a few moments before sharing your thoughts and opinions. With aging comes the opportunity to admit mistakes and ask for forgiveness. But not everybody who grows old is able to capitalize on these nuggets.

The assumptions made about aging being a steady decline, with folks quietly sitting on the edges of life just don’t fit with what is so. In 2022, aging adults remain active, essential contributors to all aspects of life, including healthcare, politics, economics, education, the arts, manufacturing, and religion. But it isn’t acknowledged at all in the news.

As This Plot Unfolds

The coming weeks will be filled with hyperbole, drama, and supposition. If you are prone to anxiety, I suggest you ignore the news, listen to the weather report on radio or your phone, and watch re-runs of the Golden Girls.

If you are fans of competition shows, then you are in for a good time. Just remember, the prize at the end of the show is not venture capital funding or a record contract. It is confirmation that our system works, and that will have to be enough.

One response to “Crime and the Elderly”

  1. Berkeley F. Fuller-Lewis Avatar
    Berkeley F. Fuller-Lewis

    Thank you Mary, for another (as always) unpredictable and interesting blog! I’ve long been fascinated by what is misunderstood about results such as from the Solomon Asch “conformity” experiments. You reiterated that those experiments coaxed many people into “acting OUT OF CHARACTER.” Whereas actually, many people (a majority?) solely REACT to conformity and social pressure ALL THE TIME, while not actually having ever developed much, or any “character” within. With such people – change the external social pressure, and the lack of character that’s ALWAYS been there, simply shows forth. Absent having that internal compass — relying on “external rules” for one’s behavior is exceedingly flimsy and “transactional.”

    In her very wise old age, my mother clarified all this for me: “People EITHER have an deep, always-operating inner ethical compass, or they DO NOT. Those HAVING one literally CANNOT do unethical or hurtful things to others. Whereas – everyone else is merely ‘going along with expectations (social pressure) – until they see some chance to profit (and get away with it) by BEING unethical or hurtful. Then they will happily “cheat.”

    Thus I view many of those fabled psychological experiments of yore — as having failed in their very definition of “character” and “ethics.” Likely very young, we either get that “ethical compass” installed into us by a beloved [and truly ethical] elder (long before and beneath words) . . . or WE DON’T And voila: The sad and enraged current “indictee” literally WAS . . . “raised by wolves” – and therefore has a black hole where an ethical compass might have been! All tantrum-like “victimhood” stuff is left over from a nightmare “childhood.” Sad for him, but far sadder for a nation.

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