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Elder abuse on the rise

by Alecia Warren
| June 10, 2010 9:00 PM

Housekeepers swiping Social Security numbers and credit cards from elderly clients. Seniors burying themselves in debt to fund their grown children's extravagant behavior.

John Corcoran has witnessed these and other occurrences of elder abuse in Kootenai County in the past five years.

"They (seniors) are a likely target. They're sometimes feeble, they're sometimes weak, they're sometimes not on top of things," said Corcoran, president of senior assistance organization ElderHelp of North Idaho, Inc. "And they're very trusting."

Sometimes those behind the abuse are strangers. Often they're family.

Even with World Elder Abuse Awareness Day approaching on June 15, many might not know the prevalence of abuse or how to intervene when they see it.

Although Corcoran's organization only stumbles across cases of abuse in the county about twice a year, he said, sometimes the instances are extreme.

Like one elderly man who racked up tens of thousands in debt supporting his capable adult son.

"He paid off his son's Mercedes, and put it all on his credit card. He doesn't have any income to pay off that credit card," Corcoran said. "I see it that enabling their children is something they (some seniors) have done for many, many, many years, and they just continue."

Reports of elder abuse in the five northern counties went up 25 percent between 2008 and 2009, said Mary Jacobsen, community services manager for the Area Agency on Aging of North Idaho.

"Certainly (it's due to) the growing number of seniors, and especially the growing number of seniors over the age of 80 and 85," Jacobsen said. "Those are the ones most at risk, because of increased frailty, increased dependence."

Ninety percent of abusers are close friends or family members, she added, because they're in a position of trust and control.

"The senior expects that they can trust their grandson or daughter to do the right thing," she said.

The agency received 319 reports of elder abuse in 2009, up from 254 in 2008, Jacobsen said.

The Area Agency on Aging, which only investigates cases involving vulnerable adults with cognitive or physical impairments, investigated 178 reports in 2008 and 128 in 2009.

Cases were evenly divided between physical abuse, mental abuse, exploitation and self neglect, Jacobsen said.

Most victims stay quiet, she added, because the persons inflicting abuse are often their caretakers.

"They're also afraid if it becomes known, people will think they're not able to stay independent," she said.

Yet abuse can be life changing for elderly individuals, Jacobsen said, especially in cases of financial exploitation, as seniors don't have the time to recoup the resources they lose through manipulation or scams.

"There are studies that indicate elders who have been victims of exploitation are at three times higher risk of dying," Jacobsen said.

The public can help by keeping vigilant for indications of abuse, she said.

Red flags include fastidious seniors suddenly becoming slovenly or missing doctor appointments, or elderly individuals changing their wills or buying things they normally wouldn't.

"Like the 83-year-old woman who has memory impairments, and all of a sudden there's a nephew in town and she's buying a new car that she doesn't drive," Jacobsen said. "Just being involved and keeping your eyes open is huge."

Abuse in a nursing home or assisted living facility should be reported to the facility, which is required to report to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said spokesman Tom Shanahan.

The department receives about three reports a day from facilities, Shanahan said, which include incidents ranging from abuse to accidents to staff mistakes.

Many abuse reports don't warrant criminal proceedings after review, he said.

"Half the cases involve one resident touching or slapping another resident, or verbal abuse from one to another," he said.

If the state decides a senior is facing imminent danger in a facility, Shanahan said, the facility's Medicaid payments are suspended.

"You essentially close the nursing facility down," he said.

That has only happened once in his nine years with the department, he added, over a neglect case in Gooding County in 2007, when a senior who should have been closely monitored committed suicide.

Vulnerable adults can call the Agency on Aging about abuse at: (800) 786-5536 or 667-3179.

Seniors without impairments should call local law enforcement, Jacobsen said.

Under state law, an individual who abuses or neglects a vulnerable adult under circumstances likely to produce bodily harm or death is guilty of a felony, punishable with imprisonment of no more than 10 years, or a fine no higher than $25,000.

Exploitation of a vulnerable adult that exceeds stealing $1,000 is also considered a felony, with the same penalty.

Otherwise, exploitation of less than $1,000, or circumstances not likely to create bodily harm or death, are considered misdemeanors punishable with imprisonment in a county jail no longer than six months, a fine no more than $1,000, or both.

Corcoran suggested a quick way to determine if a senior needs help.

"Ask."

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