The term “elder abuse” sometimes makes us
think of a scam artist selling a bogus financial investment to older
people. Sometimes we see ads from the
local District Attorney’s office showing bruised faces of an older person, and
we are horrified. What does the term
The National Committee for the Prevention
of Elder Abuse defines it as “any form of mistreatment that results in harm or
loss to an older person”. It is usually
divided into the categories of physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence,
psychological abuse, financial abuse, and neglect/self-neglect.
We focus on the categories of physical
abuse and financial abuse for this article.
Physical abuse can occur in just about any setting. Our seniors are the fastest growing part of
our population, and in Marin County, California, they make up a
disproportionately high number of our residents. However, elder abuse is a problem across the
country, in part because seniors are vulnerable. Our families are often scattered across the
state if not the country. Adult
children, who usually must assume responsibility for the elder person who loses
the ability to care for him/herself independently might live far away. They must rely on caregivers who are in
facilities, or coming into the elder’s home.
Taking care of elders in declining health can be difficult, frustrating
and can cause the caregivers to lose patience and take their frustrations out
on the elder. A large percentage of
elder abuse comes from family members themselves. Even abuse resulting in deaths have been
reported, the most extreme and tragic consequence of the overwhelming burden of
the care of an elder. If the caregiver
is a family member who feels trapped into this long term responsibility,
especially when the financial strain of paying for the many needs of a
dependent parent or relative causes stress, the unfortunate result may be that
the elder becomes a victim of physical abuse.
Unqualified caregivers are another problem, as the work is physically
demanding, the jobs hard to fill, and
the pay may be low compared with other occupations. California does not license
caregivers, and there is no standard for training except for Certified Nurses’s
Assistants, many of whom work in institutions.
Home caregivers may work a large part of the time unsupervised.
Financial abuse is a different kind of
problem. There is opportunity, as elders
may lose the ability to safely manage their own finances. Most often, there is no clear line of
demarcation between the point when someone can pay one’s own bills and handle
money, and the point at which it is clear that the senior is no longer able to
keep track of or manage finances. The
decline may be gradual. Those in
positions of trust, such as adult children, grandchildren, or unrelated
caregivers can take advantage of the declining mental capacity of a vulnerable
elder and prey upon their incapacity.
Greed is the common denominator in financial elder abuse, no matter who
commits it. The ruthless taking of
finances from a person who does not realize that he/she is being “ripped off”
is the manifestation of greed. It is sad
to witness, and sad to hear about. Caretakers
from faraway places may believe that they can get away with this form of theft,
as they can return to another country and not get caught. A family member with a drug problem can get
grandma, who trusts him, let him go to the bank and withdraw money, using a
credible explanation without any feeling of suspicion from grandma. We
have seen family members persuade the elder to give them a “loan” of
thousands of dollars, never intending to pay it back, or never able to do so. When the elder eventually really needs the
money, there is nothing, and the elder suffers.
What can the individual do when there is a
suspicion of elder abuse or actual evidence of it?
Hitting, yelling, depriving the elder of
assistance, threats of harm, and other forms of physical abuse must be dealt
with immediately. A person who is
suspected of wrongly taking the elder’s money must also be dealt with
immediately. Elder abuse is a crime both in its physical and financial
forms. All counties in California have
some form of Adult Protective Services.
In our area, for example, the County of Marin Adult Social Services has
a hotline for reporting suspected abuse of elders. (415 507-2774). Any person who believes that an elder is
being abused should call this agency immediately. Other counties have similar services which
should be utilized. The District
Attorney’s office does prosecute these abusers when sufficient evidence exists
to get a conviction. The criminal court
can order the abuser to make restitution in the form of money, but the court
itself does not give money in a criminal case.
Those who are victims of abuse also have
what is called a “civil remedy”, which is to file a lawsuit in court seeking a
money judgment. Often, it is the family
member who is suspicious that abuse or neglect occurred in a nursing home, and
who seeks legal advice. The law which
protects elders against financial abuse is the same as that which protects
against physical abuse and neglect. The
law gives lawyers incentives to accept cases of elder abuse and neglect by
providing for attorneys’ fees and other things which are generally not allowed
in other kinds of civil cases. Such
cases can be lengthy and difficult, but it may be the only recourse available.
When there is a suspicion of a developing
potential abuse problem in your family, community or a place where your loved
one is cared for, a resource does exist to address this kind of
difficulty. We use mediation to bring people together, to air the problem, and to help
those involved with the elder to work out a solution. For instance, if frustration by a caregiver
has led to yelling, physical abuse could follow. If the caregiver is an adult child, and the
siblings or other relatives are aware of the potential abuse,g with a neutral
professional may give everyone a chance to repair the problem before it gets out
of hand. Providing “respite” care at a
local nursing home (short stay care to relieve the caregiver temporarily), more
family participation or changing caregivers could mitigate the problem, as the
family chooses. If the individuals involved are wills form of conflict
resolution focuses on the problems of seniors and those who love them. It is
useful for anyone involved in the management or care of elders to consider
professional conflict resolution services as a kind of preventive care. To learn more about Elder Mediation, visit www.carolynrosenblatt.com.
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