Posted by:  Jennifer Johnson

Elder abuse manifests itself in many different ways and different types of abuse may present themselves in older adults’ lives concurrently. Sadly, elder abuse events are significantly underreported. The National Council on Aging reports that estimates range as high as five million older adults experience abuse every year—that is about 1 in 10 older adults. A study by The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that only 1 in 14 cases are reported to authorities. The number of abuse cases is increasing during the coronavirus pandemic as family and caretakers struggle under the strain of uncertainty and pressures of survival. Two-thirds of perpetrators of violence against older adults are adult children or spouses.

Abuse includes physical, emotional, psychological, financial, or sexual abuse, and neglect or abandonment. The impact of the abuse comprises a host of issues in the elderly, including:

  • Physical abuse can bring about unusual weight loss, bedsores, bruises or skin damage, broken bones, malnutrition and dehydration, pain during movement or when being touched, and higher mortality risk.
  • Incidences of distress, depression, mental health decline, anger, anxiety, confusion, fear, sleep disorders, helplessness, PTSD, non-responsiveness, and withdrawal often accompany emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse.
  • Financial abuse can bring about homelessness or loss of safe and stable housing, inability to pay for utilities, medication, or needed medical treatment, drain of retirement savings, and sometimes even incur income taxes on assets stolen from the older adult.

These underlying biological, social, financial, and psychological vulnerabilities are magnified as elderly individuals are disproportionately affected by social distancing policies and other restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. The loss of an elder’s social network makes it easier for an abuser to escape having their behavior noticed by others. Caregiver and relative abuse indicators include:

  • Speaking for the older adult who is capable of expressing themself
  • Stories that conflict between the older person and the caregiver or family member
  • Discernable substance abuse by the caregiver or family member
  • Restricting the activities of or socially isolating the older adult

Collectively, as a nation, negative attitudes about the value of older adults in our society pose significant risks to older adults’ health and well-being. During the pandemic, public discourse increasingly portrays Americans over the age of 70, even 65, as frail, helpless, and unable to contribute to society. Such attitudes can allow elder abuse to go unrecognized.

Adult Protection Services (APS) are available to victims of abuse or suspected abuse and are run by local or state health departments. While these agencies and departments work diligently to investigate elder abuse, budget constraints at the the state and local level mean fewer financial resources are available to investigate an increasing number of abuse cases. There is also a need to improve timely access to data, administrative systems, and cross-training for APS with the other agencies and disciplines in the aging field.

Two of the more important federal acts that address elder abuse are the Older Americans Act (OAA) and the Elder Justice Act (EJA). Yet, these acts’ effectiveness has been diluted with a lack of funding and relaxed enforcement. Underreporting, denial of, and underfunding of acts designed to protect older Americans from elder abuse is a significant problem in enforcing existing laws.

Since help to identify and prevent elder abuse can be difficult to come by, older adults can employ several actions to reduce their risk of being victimized. To stay safe, it is important to:

  • Maintain an active, positive, and healthy lifestyle, decreasing the chance of being vulnerable to abuse.
  • Routinely and actively monitor all financial accounts.
  • Make use of a living will that specifies future healthcare decisions.
  • Periodically review estate planning documents with an attorney to ensure there are no unauthorized changes.
  • Safely guard personal information by not providing information to persons on the phone, in email, in social media platform postings.
  • Open and review all mail, and inquire if something seems confusing or out of place.
  • Seek assistance for any family member with whom they have close contact that is experiencing substance abuse issues, abnormal behaviors like depression, or coping with the loss of income due to the pandemic.
  • Know your rights, stand your ground, and voice your opinions.

Elder abuse is a criminal, civil, and moral offense. Victims vary by age, gender, background, and status, and the abuse can be domestic or institutional. There are ways to protect yourself or a loved one from financial abuse or fraud. If you have questions or would like to discuss how to mitigate the risk of elder abuse or fraud through legal planning, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Our firm is dedicated to helping our clients and their loved ones work through issues and implement sound legal planning to address them. If we can help in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact our office at (630) 221-1755.