The National Council on Aging found that one in 10 Americans age 60 or older has experienced some form of abuse; and some estimates show that as many as 5 million seniors are abused each year.
Late last year, members of Congress came together in bipartisan agreement to pass a law supported by the American Bar Association (ABA) that would enhance the federal government’s response to elder abuse and financial exploitation of seniors.
Signed by President Donald Trump, the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act of 2017 was passed by voice vote in the House and Senate. Both bodies were informed of alarming statistics on elder fraud and abuse—this prompted overwhelming support for the legislation.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) commented, “Exploiting and defrauding seniors is cowardly, and these crimes should be addressed as the reprehensible acts they are.” He sponsored the legislation with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) and 14 other co-sponsors.
This legislation “sends a clear signal from Congress that combating elder abuse and exploitation should be a top priority for law enforcement,” Grassley added.
What is Elder Abuse?
Elder abuse takes many forms: Physical abuse, neglect, financial exploitation, sexual abuse, and emotional or psychological abuse. Research estimates that only one in 14 cases of abuse is reported to authorities. Despite the underreporting of cases, the National Council on Aging found that one in 10 Americans age 60 or older has experienced some form of abuse; and some estimates show that as many as 5 million seniors are abused each year.
“Elder abuse…is a problem that respects no boundaries,” Thomas M. Susman, director of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office, told Congress. “It’s not defined by socio-economic, racial, or ethnic status, and it occurs with alarming frequency in your states as well as all others.”
What is Elder Law?
Elder law is a relatively new concept due to the extended life spans of many Americans. This branch of law serves the needs of the elderly and their families. Why is it so important? Research shows the country’s fastest-growing demographic segment is people 85 and older, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts people 65 and older will make up approximately 20% of the population by 2030.
Quite an impressive range of issues are covered by elder law, both legal and financial, and include: Conservatorships, power of attorney, abuse, guardianship, probate and estate administration, estate planning, and end-of-life care.
North Carolina law protects disabled adults of any age from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. The law states that “any person having reasonable cause to believe that a disabled adult is in need of protective services shall report such information.” Definitions are:
Abuse: Willful infliction of physical pain, injury, or mental anguish, unreasonable confinement, or the willful deprivation by a caretaker of services necessary to maintain mental and physical health.
Neglect: A disabled adult who is either living alone and not able to provide for himself the services necessary to maintain his mental or physical health or is not receiving services from his caretaker.
Exploitation: Illegal or improper use of a disabled adult or his resources for another’s profit or advantage.
North Carolina law now offers extra protections to combat financial exploitation of adults 65 and older and disabled adults. Under the law, customers of financial institutions can submit a list of people to contact if the institution suspects the customer is a victim or target of financial exploitation. The institution is also required to report any suspected exploitation to local law enforcement. If the suspected victim is a disabled adult, the financial institution is required to report to the contact list, local law enforcement, and the county Department of Social Services.
Warning Signs of Elder Abuse
Authors Lawrence Robinson, Joanna Saisan, MSW, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. recently provided Helpguide.org an amazing amount of information concerning this topic. They say signs of elder abuse can be difficult to recognize or mistaken for symptoms of dementia or the elderly person’s frailty—or caregivers may explain them to you that way. In fact, many of the signs and symptoms of elder abuse do overlap with symptoms of mental deterioration, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss them on the caregiver’s say-so.
Frequent arguments or tension between the caregiver and the elderly person or changes in the personality or behavior in the elder can be broad signals of elder abuse. If you suspect abuse, but aren’t sure, you can look for clusters of the following warning signs.
Physical abuse warning signs:
- Unexplained signs of injury, such as bruises, welts, or scars, especially if they appear symmetrically on two sides of the body.
- Broken bones, sprains, or dislocations.
- Report of drug overdose or apparent failure to take medication regularly (a prescription has more remaining than it should).
- Broken eyeglasses or frames.
- Signs of being restrained, such as rope marks on wrists.
- Caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see the elder alone.
Emotional abuse warning signs:
- Threatening, belittling, or controlling caregiver behavior.
- Behavior from the elder that mimics dementia, such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling to themselves.
Elder neglect or self-neglect warning signs:
- Unusual weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration.
- Untreated physical problems, such as bed sores.
- Unsanitary living conditions: Dirt, bugs, soiled bedding, and clothes.
- Being left dirty or unbathed.
- Unsuitable clothing or covering for the weather.
- Unsafe living conditions (no heat or running water; faulty electrical wiring or other fire hazards).
- Desertion of the elder at a public place.
Financial exploitation warning signs:
- Significant withdrawals from the elder’s accounts.
- Sudden changes in the elder’s financial condition.
- Items or cash missing from the senior’s household.
- Suspicious changes in wills, power of attorney, titles, and policies.
- Addition of names to the senior’s signature card.
- Financial activity the senior couldn’t have done, such as an ATM withdrawal when the account holder is bedridden.
- Unnecessary services, goods, or subscriptions.
Healthcare fraud or abuse warning signs:
- Duplicate billings for the same medical service or device.
- Evidence of overmedication or under-medication.
- Evidence of inadequate care when bills are paid in full.
- Problems with the care facility: Poorly trained, poorly paid, or insufficient staff; crowding; inadequate responses to questions about care.
- If you suspect an elderly person is at risk from a neglectful or overwhelmed caregiver, or being preyed upon financially, it’s important to speak up. Report abuse to your local Department of Social Services in the county where the abused senior lives. For additional help, call the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services toll free at (800) 662-7030.
Everyone deserves to live in safety, with dignity and respect. The attorneys at Oliver & Cheek will work with you to fight for the rights of the elderly in situations of abuse. If you’re ready to take action, or if you have any questions, please contact the law offices of Oliver & Cheek by calling (252) 633-1930 or visiting www.olivercheek.com.
(Sources: North Carolina Department of Justice; National Council on Aging; The Senior List, LLC; ABA Governmental Affairs Office; ABA Journal; Helpguide.org; and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc.)