Exploring Elder Abuse

It’s important to understand that elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation happen frequently across all socioeconomic levels, in every culture.  According to the National Council on Aging, one in ten Americans over the age of 60 has experienced elder abuse.  In almost 60% of those cases, a family member perpetrates the abuse, most of whom are adult children or spouses.  That’s a frightening statistic.   The ones who have an existing long-term relationship with the elder are the ones most likely to abuse that same elder.  Abuse most often occurs in the elder’s home, another’s home, or in a nursing home.  Whatever preconceived notions you have about elder abuse, throw them out.  Elder abuse can occur by anyone, to anyone, anywhere for any number of reasons, none of which excuse the abuse.

Not too long ago, this blog explored the multiple lawsuits initiated by Katherine Feinstein, on behalf of her mother, Dianne Feinstein, the Senior United States Senator from California, Exploring the Many Issues Surrounding the Estate and Trust of Richard Blum – Part IPart II, and Part III.  The most recent lawsuit alleged the acts and lack of action on the part of the Trustees constituted elder abuse by depriving Dianne of property rights granted to her in the Trust of her late husband, Richard C. Blum.  I read a recent article that used the Feinstein matter to dive deeper into the many facets of elder abuse and thought it would be an interesting topic to explore.

The National Center on Elder Abuse prepared a study identifying seven types of elder abuse:  Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, financial or material exploitation, neglect, self-neglect, and abandonment.  As an estate planning attorney, I encounter these situations in my daily practice.  Elder abuse takes many forms, but I see it when a family member or caregiver gains access to funds through a Power of Attorney or by gifts or transfers in exchange for care or transportation to medical appointments.  It could even take the form of the senior revising their estate plan to provide a larger share to a family member who handles care for the senior.  Maybe the elder updates the estate plan to leave a modest bequest to a caregiver that continues to grow in a short period of time.  Perhaps a family member removes the senior from their home and takes them to a bank, or worse, a new attorney.  While we want to believe that every client walking through our door is there of their own accord, that’s not always the case.  If the attorney notices a senior’s apprehension in speaking in the presence of the individual who brought them to the appointment, that could be a sign of elder abuse or mistreatment.  Even those with feisty personalities may find themselves the subject of abuse.  Many elders experience embarrassment that it happened to them.

If you pay attention, you can spot signs of potential elder abuse.  Look for things such as bruises on the elder’s body, withdrawal from loved ones, poor hygiene, weight loss, untreated health issues, dehydration, unusual changes in financial accounts, hesitation when speaking, a caregiver that interferes with visitation, fearful behavior, anxiety or depression, and unexpected changes in estate planning documents or property ownership.  While any one of these things may occur as part of the aging process, several of these signs together could signal a problem.  If an attorney notices one or more of these issues, speak to the elder individual alone, ask questions, and listen to the answers.

In addition to paying attention to our elderly clients when they visit us, we have other tools at our disposal that we can pass along to others.  For example, each state administers its own ombudsman program established through the Office of the Ombudsmen.  It serves as a neutral third party for nursing home residents.  Look for your local Consumer Voice office. The National Adult Protective Services Association lists local offices that investigate suspected elder abuse.  Finally, the National Center on Elder Abuse provides guidance on reporting elder abuse.  It’s possible to obtain a protective order if an elder lives with the abuser or call 911 if the senior is in immediate danger.

We can combat elder abuse by learning to recognize the signs of elder abuse, educating our clients on scams aimed at the elderly, alerting trusted individuals, such as family members and authorities when we suspect it, and understanding the resources designed to prevent, intervene, and investigate elder abuse.  This area will continue to gain importance as our population ages and technology continues to improve.  It’s important that we continue to evolve with technology and remember that we all have a duty to protect the elderly.