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Exploitation is the most common form of abuse against elderly and disabled people in the US, according to the National Elder Mistreatment Study. It’s more common than being victimized by a stranger. In fact, most people who exploit are well known to the victim, often a close relative.
This crime is not universally considered a felony. In many places, the attitude towards familial exploitation is that it’s “in the family” so it’s private. Sometimes, sadly, elders themselves decide that it is OK to be ripped off because it’s for the child’s welfare.
Elders have been rendered homeless, destitute and in danger of death, even killed by their own children. People with enough money to sustain themselves suddenly find they are poverty cases, dependent on the government. It’s a big problem.
Who’s at risk
Elders who are isolated, lonely, in poor health, losing senses such as vision or hearing, or are for any reason dependent on another person are at risk of exploitation.
If the elder has just gone through some kind of transition, such as widowhood, disability, relapse of mental illness or physical problem, he or she is more at risk. That’s because they’re off balance, weakened and not able to manage a lot for themselves at the time.
A near perfect victim is a widowed woman, 75 or older, who is far from her family or otherwise not close to people who might help. She has physical or mental problems, which may include cognitive decline due to physical disability. She is glad of someone to help her and pay attention to her.
Who is the abuser?
The abuser wants money and is willing to do many things to get it, but has barriers to working for a living. Substance abuse or mental illness may be in the picture. Usually the abuser is related to the victim, but not always. The abuser could be a live-in caregiver so may be dependent on the victim for support.
About 60% of all abusers are male relatives. Adult children and grandchildren can easily get into position to abuse an elderly relative, moving in to take care of her or him. The moving in makes the victim more dependent on the abuser, but it also makes the abuser more dependent on the victim, and can result in resentment.
The key for the abuser is to get the victim to trust him or her. And that key is dependence.
How the abuser works.
The victim might start out being fond of a caregiver or relative and take them into confidence. Then things start to happen. Abuse can be physical, emotional, neglect, and exploitation. Though we are talking about exploitation, other forms can be used to further the abuser’s goal of getting money from the victim.
The abuser might get power of attorney at some point when it becomes “too complicated” for the victim to handle her own affairs. (Many widows have little experience with money management.) Gradually other arrangements gravitate away from the victim’s control as more and more “care” is provided.
The abuser may move things around without the victim knowing, so the victim is always hunting items she thinks she misplaced. The abuser fosters self-doubt and reinforces dependency, keeping the victim off-balance and a little anxious all the time. The victim goes along to get along now that she “can’t do without” the abuser.
The abuser may also intimidate the victim, or use physical force or neglect to reinforce the power they have. The victim might be tied to a wheelchair or left unturned in a bed, and develop sores. Rough handling of elders’ tender skin easily leaves bruises, usually in places where the victim is grabbed, such as the upper arm, or hit, as in the upper body.
Sometimes, as in being tied to a wheelchair for the day, the abuser doesn’t intend to abuse, but to keep the person safe while the abuser is at work. Still, it is abusive to tie someone down for one’s own convenience. Neglect, like intentional abuse, is reportable under the same rules (see below).
What can the abuser gain?
The abuser can get whatever emotional satisfaction that comes from dominating another human being, as well as material gain. In some cases the abuser has some kind of emotional grudge to work out against the victim.
Money generally figures in elder abuse. With a good setup, it’s relatively easy for an abuser to get a victim to cash in insurance policies and give the abuser the money. The victim might put the abuser on her bank account as an authorized signer, in case of emergency, so the bills get paid. He can then clean it out. An abuser can get the victim to sell her home, her car, any other assets, and put her on the street without a dime. With a power of attorney, the abuser can do it without the victim’s knowledge or consent.
The emotional side of exploitation is as varied as the individuals who perpetrate the crime. Some are getting revenge for some slight from many years ago. Others simply want to bypass probate and get what they want before the victim dies and leaves it to others.
How to stop it.
You can try talking to the victim if you suspect something bad is going on, but many victims don’t want to rock the boat because they don’t know how to get along without the abuser. They may not see it as abuse. Likewise, their trust in and dependence on the abuser makes the abuser look like a self-sacrificing angel to them. If there’s cognitive impairment, it’ll be hard to convince the elder otherwise.
You can try to track down things the abuser hasn’t gotten to yet and save them, and you can try to stop the victim from signing more things for the abuser. This could work and it might dislodge the abuser as well. But then the losses are lost.
So what’s left to do when trying to stop the abuse?
- Call the police.
- Call your state’s adult protective service office.
Do both things and do them right when you suspect it. A report made in good faith is protected from retaliation. You can remain anonymous with adult protective services when you report. You don’t have to have enough evidence to convict, just what makes a reasonable person suspect there’s something bad going on.
Don’t wait too long. If your elder has bruises, shows signs of neglect, has disappearing assets or stories that don’t add up, act. You may be saving a life.