Data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau projected that, by the year 2050, adults over the age of 65 will account for 20% of the nation’s population and that the fastest growing segment is adults 85 and older. As of 2010, there were 40.3 million adults aged 65+ living in the U.S. and 5.8 million adults aged 85+.
Along with this growing number of older Americans is an alarming rise in instances of elder abuse and mistreatment. A 2013 study by the National Center on Elder Abuse showed that there were nearly 6 million cases of elder abuse in 2010, affecting nearly 10% of the aging population. While physical abuse certainly comprises a portion of this issue, mental and financial abuse also comprise the bigger picture of this shameful phenomenon.
While these statistics are certainly alarming, arming yourself with information about those who prey on the elderly can be of help in protecting them from the dangers of elder abuse.
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Thoughts and Stories About Elder Abuse From Experts
Cleveland-based Attorney Adam Fried of the firm Reminger Co, LPA is an expert in Elder Law and Elder Abuse in the state of Ohio. For the past several years, he has been a board member of the Consortium Against Adult Abuse and was recently appointed First Chair. Comprised of social workers, attorneys, and front-line advocates, the Consortium is a five-county task force that develops plans to help educate the community to prevent financial abuse among the elderly. Additionally, they provide resources to individuals at-need with a heavy focus on advocating for policies to help victims of senior abuse who fall through the cracks. Many times, older adults fall through the cracks not because there are not systems in place to help them — a great many services are available, however, older adults may not necessarily have access to them or may find their access blocked.
“Senior exploitation is not a new phenomenon,” explained Fried. “It’s a phrase that encompasses many things, including undue influence. What we typically see is an individual in a susceptible position who is reliant on somebody else to manage their affairs. For many victims of elder abuse, staying at home is very important to them and it may be something that can be used against them, a usurpation of power by the perpetrator and a lack of ability to take that power back by the victim.”
Although there are numerous services throughout the country, particularly state-based Adult Protective Services (APS), that can get involved in cases of elder abuse, it’s often the more clear-cut cases of elder abuse that are resolved. A great many instances of senior abuse go undetected or unreported.
“No case is really that easy to solve,” said Fried.”But exploitation abuse is easier to detect and institute protections if the circumstances prevent a case of unquestionable abuse. In other words, clear pattern of misconduct against an elderly person who lacks the mental capacity or strength to do anything about it.”
“The harder case to solve is where a person’s lack of rational decision making is harder to diagnose. An example would be a person who, if left to their own devices, could manage their checkbook, pay their own bills, and arrange for their own services. What happens is that such a person, though capable of managing their affairs and therefore, who may not meet the definition of incompetent to the extent that a guardianship could be imposed, are nonetheless susceptible because of dependence or fear. When a predator inserts himself or herself into the relationship, what the victim might interpret as love and affection could actually be predatory behavior and abuse. An example might be an elderly person placed into rehab on medical advice who starts receiving visits from a friend who might promise to help the victim “escape” the facility. I have seen such cases whereby the victim then is manipulated to believe the family is against the victim and thus the process of isolation and switching of allegiances begins. That’s the creation of the siege mentality at work.”
While many older adults have fallen prey to persons with ill intent, some loved ones of these victims have successfully found ways to break the cycle of abuse by staying vigilant and taking action.
One of these individuals is author Phyllis Peters whose latest novel, Untethered: A Caregiver’s Tale is based loosely on her own experiences as a family caregiver, looking after five elderly relatives who were stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, all at the same time, and whose need for care lasted almost two entire decades. The story offers comic relief for caregivers, aimed not at those in care, but rather in praise of the caregiver. Recently, the book became a feature of the fundraising efforts for the Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP) via the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health. Peters calls her effort “reading for a good cause” — she is donating 100% of the profits from its sale to the AMPs efforts at eradicating Alzheimer’s Disease.
“After a while, at the risk of sounding hard, the only thing that saves you is humor,” said Peters. “So, I decided to write about the humorous side. The book’s humor is aimed at caregivers, not the seniors, although most of the humor comes from the seniors themselves. They lose their inhibitions and with my elderly relatives, I noticed a real shift in their way of looking at life. They may not realize that what they’re saying is terribly profound at times. I wonder if nature made us that way to get through those moments.”
Untethered: A Caregiver’s Tale touches on the financial aspects of preying on the elderly. One story that was fictionalized for the novel involved a pair of neighbors who lived near the authors’ relatives.
“They lived on either side of them,” explained Peters. “One woman was retired herself and the other person was a lawyer. They were in cahoots together to get my uncle to give them money and his car. My uncle was very attached to a Ford Bronco he had for years.”
When Peters and her siblings suspected something was wrong when their uncle showed signs of distress and mentioned some of the suspicious activities of the neighbors, Peters went over and introduced herself to the neighbor. This helped to show the neighbor that someone was there, someone who was watching.
Peters noted that, “What you find with elder abuse, is that sometimes, your own paranoia creeps in and you have to watch out for every eventuality.”
When the predator still wouldn’t comply despite being ruled against in mediation, Peters and her sister entered the garage of the predator, put the Bronco in neutral, and pushed the vehicle out of the garage by hand. “This is comedy you see in television series,” mused Peters. “When you care for your elderly relatives, you never expect that it will result in pushing cars onto lawns in your high heels.”
Although Peters’ family members have since passed on, she and her family were able to help shield their loved ones from predators — with a sense of humor intact.
Elder Abuse: How to Protect Loved Ones & What to Watch For
Phyllis Peters noted that, the onus to protect older adults often falls to family members and loved ones, particularly if an older person is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. ““How much the elderly can do to help themselves really depends upon their state of mental decline. If they’re aware enough, you can post a list of things to remember over their phone, reminding them not to give out their Social Security number or personal information. However, with dementia, they may have a good day and remember to look at the list, and on a bad day, it may be more difficult for them to remember.”
Another possible solution Peters pointed to was to get older relatives a call button that they can use for help, rather than a phone. “This way, people will not be able to call in and solicit information, but your loved one can call for help if they need it.” She also recommends loved ones making arrangements to have bills come to their own home and to have these bills itemized to stay on guard against any suspicious charges.
Attorney Adam Fried cautioned loved ones of older adults who wish to age in place to monitor caregivers carefully, particularly if a caregiver “has taken steps to isolate that person from friends, family, and professionals that have been a part of the victim’s life. The caregiver can sometimes convince an individual that, without their efforts, they would be relocated from their home or that others are after them for their money. In some cases, the older individual takes on the desires of the caregiver to protect themselves from others.”
Fried cited some warning signals of the emotional factors of elder abuse that loved ones should be aware of:
- Withdrawal from society, friends, and social life
- Afraid to speak
- Denial of problems
- Unpaid bills and/or transfer of funds to a caregiver
- Misuse of property or cash
Fried also pointed to a study by forensic psychologists, Ryan C. W. Hall, MD, Richard C.W. Hall, MD, and Marcia J. Chapman that cited characteristics of males and females who prey upon the elderly.
Loved ones of older adults should be wary of males who fit the following profile:
- Sociopathic or antisocial character disorder
- Developing a caregiver role and / or living with the victim
- Becoming economically dependent on victim
- Often related to the victim
- History of mental illness or substance abuse
- Has health problems of his or her own
Female predators share some commonalities with their male counterparts, but have a slightly different personality makeup, as noted by Drs. Hall and Chapman:
- Involved in a caregiving relationship with the victim
- Instills a sense of helplessness and dependency
- Isolates the victim from family members and social circle
- Positions herself as a protector of the victim while isolating them
- Makes the victim more vulnerable by diminishing their self-worth
- Has a history of unstable relationship
- Often falsifies credentials
- Opportunistic, psychologically dysfunctional, predatory, and anti-social
- Methodical in identifying victims and establishing power over them
- Gains control of assets through deceit, intimidation tactics, and psychological abuse
To further safeguard loved ones, Ms. Peters also recommended having a support system and network of friends and family who can keep watch on your loved one while you’re away at work. “Someone to stand in for you when you’re at work or can’t be on-hand for caregiving duties. It means a lot to have a trusted friend who can check on them to make sure everything is okay. And when the time comes, you can stand in for that friend’s parent when they need it.