The Elder Justice Act of 2009 defines elder abuse as “the knowing infliction of physical or psychological harm or the knowing deprivation of goods or services that are necessary to meet essential needs of an individual age 60 or older.” At least 10% of people 60 and older experience abuse, and most of these crimes go unreported; studies suggest as few as one in 24 cases is ever reported. The trauma of elder abuse can lead to hospitalization, depression, social issues and financial loss — all of which contribute to diminished independence and quality of life.
Abuse comes in many forms, but one near-universal underlying factor is social isolation. Even older adults in a community or living with family can be isolated. A genuine support structure and knowledge of and access to resources can serve as lifelines. The isolation resulting from the pandemic has made older adults an even bigger target. Regular connections are limited for their safety, giving abusers the opportunity to take advantage.
Know the clues
Perpetrators of elder abuse tend to go where the money is. Follow the clues and consider that your loved one may not tell you everything you need to know upfront. Be attentive to common red flags — physical, behavioral and emotional signs. For example, you may be asked for assistance with an eviction because the elder owes past-due rent. By asking questions, you may uncover that the rent has gone unpaid due to familial or caregiver financial exploitation; you can help the person with obtaining a revocation of a misused power of attorney or changing a Representative Payee for Social Security payments, in addition to aiding with stopping the eviction. With just a handful of signs, anyone who encounters an older adult should be able to flag elder abuse and exploitation and make appropriate referrals.
Questions of cognitive capacity may come up, and research shows that people with dementia are at a greater risk of elder abuse. Balancing respect for autonomy while guarding against undue influence is tricky but crucial. Talking with the elder alone and periodically meeting one-on-one with an eye toward potential undue influence is crucial to learning what’s going on and to build trust. A caregiver’s refusal to allow visitors to see an elder alone is a sign of abuse, as is witnessing a strained or tense relationship between a caregiver and older adult. Check in after long silences — the silence may be a way to cope with the stresses of abuse or health issues.
Work with appropriate groups
Connect with relevant agencies. The National Adult Protective Services Association offers ways to find out how to report suspected abuse in your area. Adult protective services refer cases to law enforcement if staff members believe that a crime has occurred. Some states mandate reports by law enforcement or by anyone who suspects elder abuse. Often a victim of undue influence will side with the perpetrator — even if the person has sufficient capacity to make a decision. That is, they may have been coerced. Sometimes guardians or conservators misuse their legal authority in ways that result in financial exploitation or neglect of an incapacitated person.
The guardian/conservator has a legal duty to act as a fiduciary — in a totally trustworthy manner, making decisions in the incapacitated person’s best interest. If you suspect a breach of fiduciary duty, you may want to initiate actions to freeze assets or take steps to stop the guardian from
dissipating any remaining assets. You may need to notify the court that gave the conservator the right to deal with the elder’s finances. You may want to report the fraud to adult protective services. You also may consider that it’s necessary to protect the elder from physical or financial harm by taking temporary custody of their affairs.
When you suspect an older adult has been a victim of a widespread scam, it may be a case for the Federal Trade Commission or state attorney general’s office. Keep in mind that you should be aware of a desertion of an elder at a hospital or nursing facility or a public location as another form of intimidation via abandonment.
To prevent elder abuse, understand and address the factors that put people at risk. You can report abuse or suspected abuse to local adult protective services, long-term care ombudsman or the police. If you’re not sure where to turn but you suspect someone is the victim of abuse, start by talking to an attorney who focuses on these matters like those at McCarthy Law. Many offer free consultation by phone.