When Colorado became one of the last states to require mandatory reporting of elderly abuse, neglect and exploitation in 2014, state officials expected a 15 percent increase in the number of cases reported statewide. Instead, Colorado has seen a 50 percent increase in elder abuse and exploitation reports, with 17,743 cases reported in fiscal year 2016 alone.
Thanks to new reporting laws and high-profile elder exploitation cases such as those involving Brooke Astor and Mickey Rooney, more people are aware that elderly, and incapacitated, adults are at risk of neglect and abuse. Sadly, such cases are poised to rise: Thanks to population growth and medical advances, Colorado’s elderly population is estimated to double by 2030.
“It’s a perfect storm,” says Marco Chayet
, an elder law attorney at Chayet & Danzo in Denver. “Elder issues and exploitation are now entering in the public consciousness similarly to how children’s issues were brought to the forefront in the ’70s and ’80s.”
To safeguard against such problems, make sure your loved ones have legal documentation including financial and medical power of attorney documents, and wills. “You want to get things in order before there is a problem,” says Bradley J. Frigon
, an Englewood-based elder law attorney, who adds that such legal efforts could cost between $1,000 and $7,000, depending on complexity.
Types of Abuse
But even with careful planning, seniors can be taken advantage of, especially if they’re living alone or recently widowed. Exploitation can range from financial extortion and phone scams to physical, psychological and even sexual abuse. “The people exercise influence to isolate the victim, keep other people away and convince them that nobody else cares for them,” says Catherine Anne Seal
, an elder law attorney at Kirtland & Seal in Colorado Springs, “and make them dependent: withhold food and medication or threaten with harm or abandonment if they not do what they want them to do.”
All too often, victims remain silent. “Even if they are aware of it, they are not likely to let anyone know, especially their children or anyone else who might restrict their autonomy,” says Seal, who is president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
Watch for Signs of Physical Abuse and Financial Exploitation
It’s why you have to be vigilant about warning signs of abuse, she adds.
Be on the lookout for abrasions and skin tears, plus changes in behavior: Does the person seem more depressed or forgetful? Have they become isolated and reserved? Do they suddenly have a “new best friend”?
If you are acting as an elder’s agent or conservator under power of attorney, watch their bank accounts for unusual withdrawals. And don’t ignore the actions of family members and longtime colleagues. According to a 2011 study of elder abuse, 34 percent of such cases were perpetrated by family, friends and neighbors.
If you suspect something is wrong, call your local adult protective services department or, if the potential victim lives in a long-term care facility, the operation’s ombudsman. Another option, says Frigon, is to arrange a home visit by someone who is a mandatory elder abuse reporter, such as a social worker, health care provider or clergy member. If there’s evidence of abuse, law enforcement should get involved, followed by the local district attorney’s office.
Colorado law allows someone to be appointed guardian or conservator without the help of an attorney (you can find instructions and forms on the state’s judicial department website). But once potential abuse or complicated financial matters arise, it’s likely best to contact an attorney
Above all, maintain close contact with the possible victim. Seniors who are isolated and lonely are prime targets for exploitation. “If you’ve got a family member not living near you, you still have to keep in touch as best you can,” says Seal. “Be nosy, ask questions; and, most of all, just show up.
“Elder financial abuse occurs across socioeconomic classes, at all economic levels and in all areas.”