When you can’t do things for yourself, you’re dependent on someone else. It’s bad enough to lose your independence, but worse still when you find that your caretaker, a legal guardian entrusted to be responsible for your care, has turned into your worst nightmare.
While difficult to imagine, it is an unfortunate reality for many at-risk seniors in the U.S.
Legal guardians differ from loved ones who are simply caring for an aging relative. These guardians are appointed by courts to look after an elderly person who’s been deemed unable to care for himself or herself.
Because legal guardians often have control over everything from refilling their charge’s medications to paying their bills and choosing where they live, retirees who rely on them can be in a highly vulnerable position.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly how widespread abuse by legal guardians is because there’s limited data. In a 2010 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified hundreds of allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation by guardians in 45 states and the District of Columbia between 1990 and 2010. At that time, it reviewed 20 of those cases and found that guardians had stolen or otherwise improperly obtained $5.4 million from 158 incapacitated victims, many of whom were older adults.
These stories offer a sad glimpse of what can happen to vulnerable adults as they age and come to rely on outside assistance to an ever-increasing degree.
“Because our volunteers are right in homes and get to know their elderly client so well, we sadly either suspect or hear of many stories of abuse,” Lynette Whiteman tells DepositAccounts. She is executive director of Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey, a nonprofit that provides volunteers to help the homebound elderly remain in their homes for as long as possible by shepherding them to medical appointments and helping out with vital errands like grocery shopping.
Whiteman also explains why the abuse that is reported may not capture the full picture or hint at the full scope of the problem.
“One of the most important things to keep in mind is that the elderly very rarely will report it themselves,” she says. “They are at a stage in life where they are relying on people for care and if they ‘tell on them,’ they are incredibly fearful that their care will be taken away.”
Research shows elder abuse is often committed by relatives, such as a spouse, and that familial ties can make things more complicated.
When someone in Whiteman’s organization suspects abuse, he or she calls the state’s Adult Protective Services agency. “Reports can be made anonymously, but we have a good relationship with the social workers so we trust them,” she says. “A trained social worker goes to the house and they know to talk to the elderly person alone and gather the pertinent info to move to next steps.”
What are some red flags of elder abuse?
Rick Lauber, author of “The Successful Caregiver’s Guide,” served as caregiver for both of his aging parents. His mother suffered from Parkinson’s disease and leukemia, while his father had Alzheimer’s.
If relatives of an elderly person are concerned about elder abuse, he says they should be watching for these red flags:
- The sudden changing of a will
- Unpaid bills
- Suspicious transactions on financial statements
Christopher J. Berry, a certified elder law attorney, says it’s crucial to pay attention to your elderly loved one’s finances. “Money disappearing from accounts without a paper trail,” such as large cash withdrawals from ATMs, can be another sign that something is amiss.
Be leery, too, if you see new names on an older loved one’s bank signature card, the unexplained disappearance of valuable possessions or a sudden transfer of assets to a family member or someone outside the family, warns ReKeithen Miller, a certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group.
What can you do?
In the case of fraud or theft, call your state's elder abuse hotline to file a report. You can learn more at:
1. The National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse: stopguardianabuse.org
2. The National Adult Protective Services Association: www.napsa-now.org/policy-advocacy/exploitation