Seniors are often cautioned to protect themselves from scams devised and perpetrated by strangers. However, in reality, elders are much more vulnerable to abuse from people that they trust, such as family and caregivers. It is called elder abuse.
Elder abuse happens every day ,and it takes many forms. Most people probably think of physical abuse perpetrated by a caregiver. However, abuse also comes in mental, emotional or verbal abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and financial abuse. Abuse can be committed by anyone with access to the elder including family, friends, or staff of assisted living or nursing homes.
Homebound elders are particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Neglect occurs when a caregiver ignores or withholds basic care for a senior, which can include food, water, medication, required medical equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers or oxygen, or access to medical professionals and treatment. Frequently, the elder is also isolated from other family or friends.
Statistics show that much of the physical abuse and neglect suffered by elders at the hands of family members arises from caregivers who report being overwhelmed, but there is no acceptable reason for abuse of any kind. Caregivers should seek out respite assistance from other family members, religious organizations or social services organizations to help deal with stress.
Financial abuse is particularly common. In some instances, the elder may have named a family member or trusted friend as his or her agent in a power of attorney. If the agent abuses his or her authority, a power of attorney can be revoked. Elders can seek the assistance of a lawyer to help revoke a power of attorney and execute a new power of attorney naming a different family member or friend.
Financial abuse can also occur through coercive or criminal behavior. This happens when a family member or caregiver pressures the elder into giving money to the perpetrator or paying bills on behalf of the perpetrator. Perpetrators may believe that payments such as these are gifts. However, when a senior feels that he or she has no choice but to go along with a perpetrator’s demands, it is not a gift, it is abuse. Perpetrators may also pose as an elder and use the elder’s private information, such as a Social Security number, birth date or bank account number, to take out credit cards, shop online or drain bank accounts. This act of impersonation is, among other things, identity theft, and it is a crime.
Although it can be very difficult to talk about, sexual abuse of seniors is not uncommon. It might be perpetrated by family members or by caregivers in nursing or assisted living facilities. Sexual abuse is no different from rape and other sex crimes committed against non-seniors. Like all forms of abuse, the central motivation is power and control, not sexual attraction. If an elder reports unwanted sexual contact by a caregiver, his or her report should be taken seriously. It is vital that the person in whom the senior confides does not simply accept the perpetrator’s version of events or assume that such allegations stem from age-related diseases such as dementia.
There is help available for victims of elder abuse. Many forms of elder abuse are also crimes, particularly physical and sexual abuse and some forms of financial abuse such as identity theft or fraud. Call the police to press charges against the perpetrator. In some counties, the district attorney’s office may also have victims’ advocates to help seniors navigate the court process.
If the perpetrator of elder abuse is a family member, the elder may be able to go to Family Court to request an order of protection. In many counties, local domestic violence/sexual violence agency staff can assist in the completion of petitions and accompany the elder to court. If the elder is physically or mentally disabled, help may also be available through the Department of Social Services’ office for Adult Protective Services in the county in which the elder resides. Their staff may also be able to assist in obtaining orders of protection. In Delaware County, the telephone number is 832-5300. In Otsego County, the telephone number is 547-1700.
Assistance, including referrals for free legal services, is available from the Office for the Aging in the county in which the senior resides. In Delaware County, the telephone number is 746-6333. In Otsego County, the telephone number is 547-4232.
Concerns about nursing homes or assisted-living facilities can be raised directly to staff at the facility or complaints can be filed with New York State. To lodge a complaint against a nursing home, a complaint should be filed in writing with the state Department of Health by completing the Nursing Home Complaint Form, which is available on line. To lodge a complaint against an assisted living facility call (866) 893-6772.
The most important thing to remember is that elder abuse can be prevented if family, friends, medical professionals, social service and government agencies work together. In the unfortunate cases where abuse has already occurred, these individuals and groups can help the senior obtain redress for the harm done to them.
Wayne Shepard is director of the Delaware County Office for the Aging. ‘Senior Scene’ columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/seniorscene.