Part 2: What is Elder Abuse and What can be Done About It?

By Brenda Jones, E-MDT Coordinator at Elder Law of Michigan

In my first post, I addressed the creation of the Upper Peninsula Financial Abuse Specialists Enhanced Multidisciplinary Team (U.P. FAST E-MDT) to combat elder abuse. Elder abuse is a form of family violence. Like other types of family violence, the dynamics of elder abuse are complex. The National Council on Aging estimates that 1 in 10 Americans age 60 and over have been affected by abuse. Of these older adults affected it is estimated that only 1 in 14 are actually reported, and over half are perpetrated by a family member. Abuse is an issue of asserting control over another person’s actions or behaviors. In families, an abusive person can use many ways to gain power over another. Shame or guilt may stop an older adult from revealing abuse. Sometimes victims simply do not have the capacity to report it.

According to Assaulted Women’s Helpline, “In 80% of elder abuse cases, the abuse is historical and recurring.” Elder abuse can take many forms and can occur in both community and institutional settings. Abusers can be family, friends, strangers, as well as trusted or paid caregivers. Knowing how to recognize and report abuse is the first step to prevention.

As we age, if we do not have strong social supports we become vulnerable to elder abuse. According to Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in an Aging America, risk factors include:

  • Social isolation,
  • Lack of access to social support systems and community resources,
  • Increased dependence on others,
  • Caregiver stress, and
  • Relationship of the victim to perpetrator.

According to a white paper published by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Elder Financial Exploitation, there are three interrelated factors that make the older population particularly vulnerable to abuse and financial exploitation.

  1. The health-related effects of aging: As we age, financial impairment is one of the earliest signs of cognitive decline. Physical decline creates an increased dependence on others.
  2. Financial and retirement trends: You have heard the term “the wealth of the older generations” this term makes older adults prime targets for financial exploitation. The shift from managed benefit plans that were once provided by employers to defined contribution plans that older adults have to manage themselves just when their ability to do so may be impaired increases the risk of exploitation.
  3. Demographic trends: Increases in the aging population spur a parallel growth in financial exploitation. Some studies show the financial exploitation of older adults as the most prevalent form of elder abuse. The magnitude of financial losses has led some experts to call elder financial exploitation a “burgeoning public health crisis” and a “virtual epidemic.”

Older adults have much more difficulty recovering from physical injuries and financial loss. The effects for those who experience abuse or victimization include diminished health, irrevocable financial loss, loss of social connections, and decreased independence. According to the National Centers on Elder Abuse, the impact on elders who have been abused indicates “elders that experience even modest abuse have a 300% higher risk of death when compared to those who have not been mistreated.” Additionally, while likely under-reported, the National Council on Aging estimates “elder financial abuse and fraud costs older Americans between $2.9 billion- $36.5 billion annually.” Though the impact of physical, emotional, sexual abuse, and neglect are greater, financial exploitation is self-reported at greater rates within the elderly population.

The National Center on Elder Abuse lists some signs of elder abuse:

Physical signs: Broken bones, bruises, welts, cuts, sores, or burns. Torn, stained, or bloody underclothing, sexually transmitted diseases without clear explanation, unsanitary living conditions, poor hygiene, unusual weight loss, or dehydration.

Emotional/Behavioral signs: Unusual changes in behavior or sleep, fear or anxiety, isolation from friends and family, withdrawal from normal activities, sadness.

Financial signs: Unusual changes in a bank account or money management services, unusual or sudden changes in a will or other financial documents, fraudulent signatures on financial documents.

Athens Community Council on Aging lists five things everyone can do to prevent elder abuse.

  1. Listen to older people and caregivers to understand their challenges and provide support.
  2. Educate one another about the signs of abuse and how to get help.
  3. Report suspected abuse or neglect as soon as possible.
  4. Build a community that fosters social connections and supports.

The National Council on Aging suggests if you have been the victim of a scam/fraud, you’re not alone, talk to someone you trust. Many victims of such schemes feel embarrassed and do not report. This can make things worse. There are people out there that can help you recover lost resources including the local police, your bank, and Adult Protective Services. Reporting scams and fraud may protect others from falling victim.

To report suspected abuse or neglect in the community setting call Adult Protective Services at 1-855-444-3911. To report suspected abuse or neglect in long-term care facilities call the Long-Term Care Ombudsman at 1-866-485-9393. Abuse reports may also be made to any local law enforcement agency.

Brenda Jones is an Enhanced Multidisciplinary Team (E-MDT) Coordinator at Elder Law of Michigan and has been a member of the Elder Law of Michigan team since December 2019. As an E-MDT Coordinator at Elder Law of Michigan, Brenda works to develop an enhanced team of specialists and community members to address the issues of elder abuse/financial exploitation in the rural communities of Chippewa, Luce, and Mackinac counties in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan.