Keep your eyes open for abuse during the holidays
It’s not a very holiday-like subject, but if you seldom see your older relatives except at Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s an important time to be alert for signs of elder abuse. Not that you should necessarily talk about it, but keep your eyes open for obvious and for subtle signs of problems. For example, does Uncle Edward have bruises on his arms he can’t explain? It’s often true that seniors bruise easily, but it doesn’t hurt to ask him about it. Does he seem nervous about answering? If so, do what you can to get to the bottom of it.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) says that elder abuse is much more common than we’d like to think. Among Americans 60 years old and up, at least one in nine has been abused in some way in the last year. And:
• Of those who are abused, more than half generally are afraid to report it and observers are reluctant to step in. For example a neighbor may overhear a caregiver yelling at your mother,
but decide it’s none of his or her business.
• While unscrupulous strangers can certainly mistreat seniors if they get the chance, in nine out of 10 cases the abused senior knows the abuser.
• Very often the abuser is a family member, and in two out of three cases, the abuser is the spouse or the adult child of the victim.
The most common form of elder abuse is financial. Each year, at least $2.6 billion is pilfered from seniors in various schemes and scams, from family, acquaintances, caregivers, and strangers. While you are visiting your elder relatives during the holidays, you might ask casually if they are doing okay financially. Never mention the word “abuse,” says the National Center of Elder Abuse, but instead ask discreet questions. For example, “Is there anything you need help with, such as housekeeping, doctor appointments, money management?” “Are you able to keep up with your bills or is it difficult to remember to send checks out every month?” That may open the topic up so the elder can tell you if there are problems.
If you can do it without being intrusive, watch for signs like these:
• Stacks of unopened bills or mail that appears to be past due notices, like a utility bill in a thin pink envelope or marked “final notice” or “urgent.”
• Bank notices of bounced checks and/or
• Large withdrawals from bank accounts.
• Mentions of missing money, as in “I don’t know where my money went this month.”
A great resource in detecting elder financial abuse is often the bank tellers where your relative banks. They are trained to watch for signs of coercion. For example, if your elderly aunt has a caregiver who is pilfering money from her, the caregiver may accompany your aunt to the
bank. Tellers notice when the elder seems nervous, when there are uncharacteristic withdrawals, and when checks start bouncing. Note: if you haven’t already done so, find out about being listed as a contact person on your relative’s bank account in case of concerns.
Who are the abusers and the victims?
A MetLife study of elder financial abuse (done in 2010) showed the most likely age group to be victimized is 80 to 89 years old. Are your elder relatives in that category?
Profiles of perpetrators from the same study shows that among male perpetrators, most were in the 40 to 59 year old age group. Among females, most perps were 30 to 39. They may or may not be related to the victim. Take some time to consider if anybody in those age ranges is in contact with your elderly loved ones. If so, how well do you know these people? Is there reason for concern?
The scammers who can do the most damage, financially and emotionally, are the ones who target lonely seniors and “befriend” them. The senior trusts the scammer and feels he or she can help. That’s when the money begins to slip out of Aunt Irma’s bank account and is gone forever. That’s why it’s critical to stay in touch with elderly relatives.
Note: Check out your parents’ “friends” carefully, but also realize not everyone is a scammer. Personally I’ve had several friends and neighbors who were 20 to 35 years older than me, who I spent time with because I knew they were lonely. In one case, I dropped in on a neighbor to find that her house reeked of gas from her stove, but she smelled nothing. I got her and her dog outside and got emergency help.
Because I have no ulterior motives, when I make friends with an older person I let their families know who I am and how to reach me. If your parents have friends that aren’t transparent with you, find out why.