What to do when you suspect elder abuse against an older loved one
Q. My father, age 80, was diagnosed with dementia in 2016 and eloped with his wife in 2020. It was out of character for him to marry without informing his children, so early on we saw some red flags. With the pandemic, he became increasingly isolated and was told by his wife that his kids only want his money — as she gave her brother $50,00. My dad surreptitiously called us begging for help. When his wife found out he spoke with us, she took away his phone and made it impossible for us to communicate with him. We have been told that we are no longer welcome in their home and we also are concerned he is not getting needed healthcare. His wife told my dad his doctors refuse to speak with family members. I feel powerless to help him. What are the resources we can tap? R.A.
There is no question that what you have described sounds like elder abuse. The American Psychological Association indicates that abuse occurs any time a family member or caregiver behaves in a way that causes “fear, mental anguish, emotional pain or distress.”
Let’s further define the term. It’s an intentional act or failure to act that causes or creates risk or harm to an adult, usually age 60 and older. The abuse occurs by a caregiver or a person trusted by the older adult. According to the definition of elder abuse, your father’s situation qualifies. He is being confined or isolated for reasons other than medical ones; he likely is suffering emotional abuse being isolated from his family; he likely is being deprived of adequate health care and finally, it sounds like he is being financially exploited.
The frequency of elder abuse is alarming and is considered a global public health and human rights issue. According to the National Council on Aging, up to five million older Americans are abused every year. About one in 10 adults age 60 and older experience some form of abuse. Victims of financial abuse lose about $36.5 billion a year. Yet, a national study suggests only one in 24 cases are reported to authorities in Elder Abuse Facts: What Is Elder Abuse? Cultural and societal attitudes play a role by making it difficult to reveal abuse. The lack of respect for older adults and the belief that behaviors and actions in the home are private family matters can contribute to undetected abuse.
Both men and women can be abusers. About 60 percent of the perpetrators are family members; two-thirds are adult children or spouses. Those with dementia are particularly vulnerable with nearly half experiencing abuse or neglect. The overall impact of abuse and neglect is profound. We know that older adults who have been victims have a 300 percent higher risk of death compared to those who have not been mistreated.
Elder abuse can happen to any older person. You might remember the case of Lady Astor in New York. She was a beloved philanthropist of New York’s high society. After years of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, she died in 2007, leaving an estate valued at $185 million. She became a victim of elder abuse by her son Anthony Marshall, who was later convicted of defrauding his mother. Additionally, Lady Astor was forced to live in squalor, was cut off from outside contacts and denied medication and care. This happened to a well-known personality with far-reaching and powerful contacts.
So, what to do?
In Los Angeles County, call the Elder Abuse Hot Line Services at (877) 477-3646. In Orange County, call the Adult Protective Services Registry Elder Abuse Hot Line at (800) 451-5155. In both cases, someone will take a report and a social worker will be assigned to connect with the alleged victim within one to 10 days. If it is a family member, friend or neighbor, you do not have to give your name.
We know that elder abuse is a silent problem. It robs older adults of their dignity, security and in some cases their lives. To offer coordinated protection, the Elder Justice Act passed in 2010 is the first comprehensive legislation to address abuse, neglect and exploitation of older adults at the federal level.
What is most important is to recognize such abuse and report it.
Thank you, R.A., for your important question. Hopefully, one of the agency’s social workers will intervene and ensure that your father will no longer be a victim. He is fortunate to have you as his advocate. Stay well and be kind to yourself and others.
Note: Over the years I have written over two dozen columns on abuse, neglect and scams in response to questions from our readers. Clearly, the prevalence of abuse and neglect is high; the need to know where to turn for help is crucial. In many cases, that help is life-saving.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity.