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Elder Abuse is a Growing Concern

Renee Martin handles difficult elder abuse cases in the state attorney general’s office. Photo by Chris Sembrot

By Cristina Rouvalis

Here’s the dire situation presented to Renee Martin, director of education and outreach for the state attorney general’s office: A 72-year-old Lancaster County man was in danger of losing his home because his drug-addicted son had stolen thousands of dollars from his accounts.

The tip came from a woman living next door to the man.

Martin contacted the Lancaster County Office of Aging, which had already been looking into the case. But their investigation turned up something else—the neighbor was allegedly dipping into the older man’s funds too. Between the son and the neighbor, the man was out approximately $50,000.

“It seems like she wanted more money. The son was taking it all. She was a ‘good neighbor’ to the tune of about $12,000,” said Martin, who fields elder abuse ​complaints from a hotline in the attorney general’s office, 866-623-2137 toll-free. The Office of Aging was able to take guardianship of the man’s accounts so he could keep his house.

Elder abuse can take many forms, from physical to sexual to neglect. But state officials are seeing a rise in financial exploitation, which is often carried out by trusted relatives or friends.

“It’s just a tragic situation,” said Ray Landis, advocacy manager for AARP Pennsylvania. “With physical abuse, it’s easier to investigate. Financial exploitation is harder for folks to get their arms around.”

Even when county officials untangle complicated financial records and find fraud, prosecutors often deal with reluctant victims who don’t want to send their children or grandchildren to jail.

“The unfortunate reality is that a majority of cases involve loved ones, and older adults don’t want to follow through with the prosecution,” said David Gingerich, deputy secretary of the state Department of Aging.

Allegations rise sharply

Elder abuse allegations are on the rise, with more than 18,000 complaints filed in Pennsylvania during the 2010-11 fiscal year—a 29 percent jump from two years before. During the same period, substantiated complaints rose 27 percent to more than 4,300.

Neglect by caregivers accounted for 27 percent of the abuse cases, while financial exploitation accounted for 15 percent.

The General Assembly is working to strengthen and broaden the scope of the Older Adults Protective Services Act. One proposal would preclude anyone convicted of abusing a care-dependent person from working in a setting such as a nursing home. Other proposals call for defining financial exploitation as a violation of state law.

The House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee recently held hearings on the issue. AARP’s Landis and Jacqueline Burch, executive director of the Lancaster County Office of Aging, testified on the growth of financial abuse.

“We are almost at the point of a perfect storm,” Burch said. “We are a graying state, with people living longer. People age 60 and up are the largest holders of wealth in our county, and they rely on other people for their care and to manage their finances.”

An adult child or friend might use an older person’s ATM card to buy them something, she said, and then run up personal charges or dip into their checking account.

Besides loyalty to relatives, older adults may be reluctant to pursue fraud cases for another reason. “Sometimes they are fearful of prosecuting someone who is providing their care, because that may mean going to a nursing home, which is the last thing they want to do,” Burch said. “Often, older people accept that people take their money if they can stay at home.”

The state Department of Aging’s confidential elder abuse hotline can be reached at 800-490-8505.

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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