Margot G. Birke
Elder Abuse Awareness
Just what is “elder abuse”? It has many different faces. The list includes physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation, neglect, and self-abuse. These are all very difficult and complicated issues. What makes an elder vulnerable to abuse? What can you do to avoid or stop it?
Elder abuse doesn’t follow any social or financial guidelines; it can affect people from all ethnic backgrounds and social status, and can affect both men and women. Domestic elder abuse is the type of mistreatment that is committed by someone with whom the elder has a special relationship: for example, a spouse, a sibling, a child, a friend, or even a caregiver. Institutional abuse is the mistreatment or neglect that occurs in a residential facility, a nursing home, assisted-living, or group home. Mistreatment can run the gamut from physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation, neglect, to abandonment.
So, what are the warning signs of elder abuse? Physical abuse could manifest as bruises, pressure marks, or broken bones. Emotional abuse could cause unexplained withdrawal from what people do normally, depression, a lack of alertness, etc. Sudden changes in a financial situation could be the result of scams or theft. The presence of bedsores or mismanaged or unattended medical needs would be clear signs of neglect. You might hear a person upon whom the elder depends belittle or threaten their relative or charge, or threaten to exercise the use of power and control.
Contrary to what you might think, most elders are financially abused, not by strangers, but by friends or family members. Unfortunately, children score high on the list of offenders – people who are trusted to take care of their affairs for them, but who go ‘rogue’, shall we say, and take care of themselves instead.
Financial exploitation, in a nutshell, is when somebody uses your money for his or her benefit and not for yours. Often, these abusers have been given the legal authority to have control of the elder’s finances through a durable power of attorney or as a trustee of a trust. Or, a child has been put on a bank account for “convenience”, but it turns out to be for his or her convenience, not yours! If you think this just happens to elders who are homebound or without friends keep in mind that Mickey Rooney was financially abused by one of his step-children, and Brooke Astor was abused by her son who, in his mid-eighties was sent to prison for the things he did.
More often than not, the people suffer in silence: there is a taboo about speaking out about elder abuse. A lot of guilt and silence when somebody is the victim of domestic, physical, and emotional abuse carries over to people when they get older. They don’t want to speak about it, they feel responsible, but they’re not capable of doing something about it. So they just feel guilty.
If you are faced with this situation what steps can you take? A more basic question is will you be willing to do something about it? If you are being abused by a close relative or someone you rely on for food and shelter or companionship you may be very reluctant to put a stop to it. In a case like that, you might consider speaking to your doctor or clergyman to begin with.
Try and take care of your health. Remain as active and involved as you can. Never give out any personal financial information over the telephone or internet, and if you get a letter in the mail and the offer is too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true!
Visit you local Senior Center and get involved in activities so that you are not isolated. If you can’t get out of the house have meals on wheels delivered. Even if you don’t love the food, this is a daily contact with someone with whom you can talk and who can check on you.
If you suspect someone is being abused, you may contact Elder Protective Services. In Massachusetts if you call 1-800-892-0890 and tell them where you live, they will connect you to the appropriate department. Everything you tell them will be kept confidential and your name will never be divulged. They will investigate and substantiate any reported abuse, and may also refer the case to the office of the District Attorney. It’s the office of the district attorney that would bring any criminal charges if that is what is called for.
Contact your attorney. If the recourse is not criminal, an attorney can help you bring your case to court so that you could receive restitution for any of your funds that have been misappropriated.
This is just a brief overview of a very complex issue and some potential problems that can come about by being too trusting. We all like to trust our friends and our family, but sometimes giving somebody the key to your house encourages them to take your furniture. Therefore, I would strongly advise that, any time you’re thinking of engaging in any kind of transfer of assets or real property, you definitely seek legal counsel so that you understand exactly what it is you’re going to be doing and the potential pitfalls of your actions.
For more information on elder abuse, how to raise awareness and get involved, visit the National Center on Elder Abuse’s website here.