One of the crimes elderly people typically fall prey to is financial exploitation, which is the illegal use of the money or property of a senior or disabled adult for another person’s profit.
Kay Inoshita, director of the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program for the Area Agency on Aging District 7, is the chairwoman of the Task Force. She said senior or adult financial exploitation occurs when a senior or disabled adult is tricked, persuaded or forced into handing over money or property to a son, daughter, other relative, professional caregiver, or a stranger. Inoshita says, unfortunately, it happens more often than most people think, but since only 1 in 44 cases of financial abuse get reported, it is rarely heard about.
One of the ways people get control of an elderly or disabled person’s financial assets is to gain power of attorney for their own benefit. According to Task Force members, there are no standards for obtaining power of attorney status and there may be nothing in the works to correct the problem.
“I don’t know of anything that is being done,” said Rita Prose, a social worker for Hill View Retirement Community. “People can have a friend or a family member who sees an opportunity, and says, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be easier for you if I kind of helped you with this, because I can see you’re really having a hard time.’ That person doesn’t have to meet any standard or anything. All they have to do is come in with a notary (public). The person will sign papers and not even know what they are signing. This happens frequently.”
Elizabeth Townsend of Best Care said there really isn’t even a necessity to have a notary public, just two non-related witnesses can make it legal.
“They’ll bring it into the nursing home and ask the person who has dementia to sign it. They don’t really understand what they’re signing,” Inoshita said. “Then the social worker learns about it later.”
Prose said part of the work the Task Force is attempting to complete is to try to get some possible regulations put in place governing the practice of gaining power of attorney.
“Most of the abuse and exploitation is from family members,” Inosita said. “It’s not legal if they have dementia and they are signing something. But who is going to go to court or try to do something about it. Lots of times no one does, and they get by with it.“
Inoshita herself is just such a person who has helped numerous people in that very set of circumstances.
Recently, when an elderly man and his daughter discovered a caregiver had opened credit card accounts in the man’s name, the daughter said, “Kay held my hand through the whole process. I don’t know what I would have done without her.”
The caregiver pleaded guilty to identity fraud against an elderly person or disabled adult and theft by deception.
Prose said it is often difficult to intervene in a situation where a family member might be attempting to get financial gain from an elderly person.
“You can try to get other family members involved,” Prose said. “But they almost have to come to you, because you can’t just go to them and say, ‘I suppose ... or, I think somebody is doing this. They have to come to you. And then you can advise them what to do. I advise them to consult an attorney and start working with that attorney, because that attorney can go to court to have this revoked, and have a guardian put in place if the person needs a guardianship.”
Prose said a trust can also be established with a bank. Inoshita said guardianship is a last resort.
Sometimes, people who are placed in nursing homes are completely abandoned by their family and friends. So who are their advocates?
“The ombudsman,” Inoshita said. “The ombudsman makes regular visits to long-term care facilities. Most get quarterly visits. We have volunteer ombudsmen as well as staff ombudsmen who go out into the homes and visit the residents and educate them about their rights. Also the social workers in the facilities call us sometimes when they suspect financial exploitation from a family member and get us involved, or get Eric Horsley of Adult Probation Services involved.”
One such program that can be beneficial is the PASSPORT (Pre-Admission Screening System Providing Options and Resources Today) program.
“If they are eligible, they enroll in PASSPORT and receive home care services, someone to help them with house cleaning, bathing, home-delivery of meals and Lifeline emergency buttons,” Prose said. “It also provides transportation for medical visits, so it helps keep them out of the nursing home and in their own home as long as possible. Sometimes they have a fall, can go to rehab, and sometimes come back home.”
Horsley said sometimes people fail to report abuse for fear of retaliation.
“Everyone denies that, but it’s very real,” Horsley said. “That is very difficult to detect, prosecute, what ever word you want to use.”
Prose and Inoshita both said most nursing homes are operated professionally and attempt to watch for any issues and report them, and have staff members who work directly with residents to protect them from exploitation.
Inoshita said one of the problems is that some elderly people are in denial about what family and friends are doing to them. She said sometimes elderly and disabled residents are threatened with being put in a nursing home if they report exploitation.
“Our nursing facilities now are nothing like those people remember years ago,” Inoshita said. “But in their minds they are the worst thing possible. But it’s giving up their home — their independence — and no one want to give their home up, even if they think the nursing home provides good care.”
Prose said family members can actually justify taking money from an elderly family member.
“One is a sense of entitlement,” Prose said. “Families think they are entitled to their family member’s money. The other one is because of drug use. And the bigger one of the two seems to be the family’s sense of entitlement.”
“The three areas that we see primarily are housekeepers, door-to-door contractors that take advantage of the elderly, and the most significant area is families with individuals that engaged primarily in prescription drug abuse and drug use in general,” Portsmouth Police Chief Charles Horner said. “That being that they are stealing from the elderly victim, victimizing the elderly to support the habit.”
The members also agreed the downturn in the economy results in more elder and disabled abuse.
Inoshita said the warning signs for elder financial exploitation include a sudden change in finances and accounts; altered wills or strust; unusual bank withdrawals; checks written to “cash” or as “loans” or “gifts”; and loss of personal property. She said bank employees are being educated in spotting financial exploitation as well.
To reach an ombudsman with with Area Agency on Aging 7, people may call (800) 582-7277. Adult Protective Services can be reached at (740) 354-6661.
FRANK LEWIS may be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232, or firstname.lastname@example.org.