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Elder Abuse — It Can Happen to Anyone

Ending the growing problem will require all of us being alert and committed to taking action

Have you ever said to yourself, “That won’t happen to me — I am too savvy to be trapped in some silly scam”? Well, I am one of those people! After all, I had been involved with the Elder & Dependent Adult Abuse Prevention Council for nearly 10 years and was well aware of the scams and “slick” talkers. But guess what? I got trapped at a point in my life when I was most vulnerable.

Jeanne West
Jeanne West

How else could I be so passionate about elder abuse prevention had I not fallen prey myself? Here is my simple story.

After my husband died, I listed a number of items for sale on Craigslist — things that I no longer needed and items that I needed to part with as I contemplated a move. One of those items was an electric lift chair. I thought for sure there would be little if any interest, but to my surprise, that was the first item of inquiry.

The person who inquired about it posed as a disabled person, asked my price and begged me to hold it for her, telling me she would have to send a moving company to pick it up. She wondered whether it would be OK to send a cashier’s check since she had no way of getting to my home. I found my heart reaching out to this unknown person, feeling sorry for her and, of course, I said I would accept a cashier’s check. I kept thinking, “My, this will go to someone in great need.”

The next thing you know, I get a panic email stating that her bank made a mistake and instead of sending the $350 for the chair, they accidentally sent her entire salary. She hoped that I was honest and would I please keep the money for the chair and wire the balance to her. I assured her I was an honest person and I would most assuredly do that. She promised to have the moving company come for the chair as soon as she received her refund. My heart just ached that she had no one to help her and had to resort to such means to get something she desperately needed.

Now, let me say that in my gut something did not feel right, but then I chastised myself for being so suspicious. I even told the story to my brother, who offered to deliver the chair — neither of us really believing that anything was amiss, though I kept hearing a voice saying, “Why are you wiring money to this person?” Yet, I did it.

My bank never questioned the check upon deposit. But two weeks later, I got a very nasty phone call asking me where I got that check and didn’t I know that it was “phony.” For the next two weeks, I questioned myself — my intelligence (or lack of it), why I skipped all the warning signs, and more importantly, I found myself feeling both stupid and foolish.

I shared this with a close friend who is also an attorney. Her words comforted me to some degree. She said, “Jeanne, they targeted you. The lift chair was a sign that someone close to you had either died or was placed in a nursing home, and they knew that you were vulnerable.” And that was so true! From that moment on, I knew I would use this experience to teach and advocate on being aware of the elder abuse that is pervasive in our country and in the world.

In 2012, here is what we know to be true. Every day, headlines throughout the United States paint a grim picture of seniors who have been abused, neglected and exploited, often by people they trust the most. Abusers may be spouses, family members, personal acquaintances or professionals in positions of trust. Abuse can also happen as a result of opportunistic strangers preying on the vulnerable senior or dependent adult, as my own experience demonstrates.

From telemarketing scams, door-to-door salesmen and sweepstakes offers to actual and deliberate theft, along with the serious nature of physical and emotional abuse that occurs within this vulnerable population, elder and dependent adult abuse is a serious a growing problem that demands our attention now.

Elder abuse can and does occur anywhere — in the home, nursing homes or other institutions. It affects seniors across all socio-economic groups, cultures and races. Based on available information, women and “older” elders are more likely to be victimized. Dementia is a significant risk factor. Mental health and substance abuse issues — of both abusers and victims — are also risk factors. Isolation can also contribute to abuse.

Statistics of elder abuse nationwide are staggering. Recent data reveal that there are 6 million cases of elder abuse every year. It is believed that an elder is abused every five seconds. California accounts for 10.6 percent of all elder abuse cases in the United States. Just five states account for more than one-third of all elder abuse cases in our nation. The sad news is that only one in every 14 cases is ever reported.

During the past year, we have often read headlines that dealt with cases of elder financial abuse.

Most recently, former Santa Barbara attorney Philip Myers made front-page headlines on too many occasions. One such front-page story reported: “Admitting to a financial elder abuse allegation brought a two-year sentence — on top of that, Judge Bianco, based on the amount of money involved, imposed another two.” Though Myers is now serving prison time, that won’t bring back restitution to the victims in his scheme. But we do hope that as a result of all the press coverage, our community is more aware of the types of fraudulent activities that are swirling around our community.

While in the case of Myers, we see that a trusted adviser can easily fall into the role of elder abuse perpetrator, it has been estimated that somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of those who victimize the elderly or dependent adults are from within their own family. We hear of the serious cases, but just imagine those incidents that go unreported, often because of fear or embarrassment. This elder and dependent adult abuse must stop — and it takes each one of us to be alert, vigilant and committed to taking action whenever we see or suspect that abuse has or is taking place.

In Santa Barbara County, we have a multi-disciplinary team of professionals who comprise FAST (Financial Abuse Specialist Team). Funded by grants from the Archstone and Towbes foundations, and under the auspices of the Area Agency on Aging, this group meets monthly to discuss complex cases of elder and dependent adult financial abuse.

Consultants who serve on FAST are professionals from throughout Santa Barbara County who serve on a volunteer basis. The monthly meetings provide a forum for discussion, recommendations and education to review cases and help further the investigation or other proactive measures related to elder and dependent adult abuse. Customarily, cases are brought to FAST by Adult Protective Services, the Long Term Care Ombudsman or Tri-Counties Regional Center. However, anyone can submit a case to FAST for review. Law enforcement and a member of the District Attorney’s Office attend the meetings and provide valuable input regarding legal action and also report on cases that have resulted in arrest and/or trial.

Santa Barbara County also has a very active Elder & Dependent Adult Abuse Prevention Coordinating Council, which meets monthly. Comprised of professionals in the health, legal and social services spectrum of senior care, this group’s mission is to address emerging trends in elder abuse, provide education to the community on elder abuse prevention, and respond to pending state legislation that in some way may affect the welfare of seniors and dependent adults.

Most recently, on May 24, the council put on a daylong conference titled “Safeguarding Elders and Dependent Adults Against Abuse” with nearly 100 professionals and seniors in attendance. These educational programs spotlight the emerging trends in elder abuse scams and also provide insight and actual strategies for protecting oneself against financial abuse.

Friday, June 15 has been designated as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. We are using this occasion to alert all citizens to be observant and responsive to any possible cases of elder abuse and to report them to the proper authority. For cases of suspected abuse in the home, call Adult Protective Services at 805.681.4550. Cases of abuse taking place in a long-term care facility should be reported to the Long Term Care Ombudsman at 805.922.1236. In the event that an elder or dependent adult is in imminent danger, one should immediately call 9-1-1 and report to law enforcement.

For general information on elder abuse, to submit a case for FAST review or to request a presentation on the subject, I encourage you to call the Area Agency on Aging at its toll-free number,  800.510.2020. All are encouraged to take a proactive role in preventing elder and dependent adult abuse. Whether it is getting a free copy of your credit report, freezing one or all credit card accounts, removing your name from direct mail and telemarketing lists, or removing yourself from unwanted email and Internet ads, each of us can and must take whatever measures we can to prevent unwanted and perhaps bad solicitations.

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Let’s focus ourselves on the task of not only being more alert to the signs of elder abuse, but also taking the next steps of reporting abuse to the proper authorities for investigation and action.

— Jeanne West, RN, MHA, is the FAST coordinator for Santa Barbara County.

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