This is the second of Atlanta Senior Life’s two-part series to help elders, seniors and family members recognize and stop abuse before it begins.
Becky Kurtz, Managing Director, Aging & Independence Services, Atlanta Regional Commission, sees nearly every day how easily abuse can occur with Atlanta’s growing senior community.
Atlanta Regional Commission data shows that 16% of metro Atlanta’s population was already over the age of 60 in 2015. By 2030, that figure is projected to reach 24% or more.
“One thing we do know about abuse is that women are victimized more frequently than men,” Kurtz said. Sometimes that abuse is coming from a spouse. Whether it’s called domestic abuse or elder abuse, the name doesn’t matter, the problem does.
According to the Administration for Community Living, abusers generally use a pattern of coercive tactics, such as isolation, threats, intimidation, manipulation and violence to gain and maintain power over victims.
Kurtz encourages all older adults to remain active and stay involved, as much as possible. “Socialization can help lower everyone’s risk from abusers,” she said.
Seniors can be abused in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes, the abuse is physical. But abuse can also be emotional or financial. And targets can be as varied as the way they are abused. Here’s a look at several types of abuse local social workers and journalists say they’ve discovered in our local communities.
Watch Out for Physical Abuse
Pat King, a registered nurse, worries about physical abuse of older adults. It’s her job. King manages the Forensic Special Initiatives Unit in the State of Georgia’s Division of Aging Services.
Since she began as a prosecutor’s investigator, King has “encountered the worst physical abuse toward others,” she said. And she learned to become increasingly aware of unexplained fractures or malnutrition in older patients.
When she first started her work, “there were no laws and zero awareness [for many of us in the field],” she said. Immediately, she was interested in learning as much as possible about ‘suspicious deaths,’ by beginning basic research with the local medical examiner’s office.
“I saw patterns and trends [of physical abuse] come to light,” she said. Currently, it’s the main focus of her work. Her unit supports agencies helping with, and working for, at-risk adult crime victims through technical assistance, case consultations and reviews.
Physical abuse is sneaky. It can show up unexpectedly in the finest of assisted living facilities and even specialized personal care homes. At times, a broken hip can be the first warning sign of inadequate staffing or lack of training.
Georgians may not realize while nursing homes are tightly regulated, other types of senior living facilities may not be. Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s (AJC) investigative reporters, Carrie Teegardin and Brad Schrade, provided “the public with behind-the-scenes insights” on Georgia’s private-pay, older adult industry. Through their combined work, the two reporters learned that 35 states have set higher standards than Georgia.
In some cases, physical protection for residents remains dangerously lacking. “The maximum fine issued for the most serious violations is typically $601,” Teegardin said.
She added that these seniors were some of the most vulnerable people she’d written about in her years of investigative reporting. Addressing physical abuse in facilities will require state policy changes with new mandates and public-private partners.
Looking to Banks for Help
Local seniors also can become victims of financial abuse as scammers often find them convenient and gullible targets.
Not many people think about a bank as a source of senior assistance. But it can be. Several banks participate in AARP’s BankSafe program, which facilitates partnerships between older adults and financial institutions.
Financial mistreatment, manipulation or “exploitation of older adults and adults with disabilities frequently goes unrecognized, unreported and unprosecuted,” explained David Blake, a bank trainer with Georgia’s Division of Aging. “A change in banking habits by a bank customer is sometimes the first indication of trouble. Red flags include misappropriation of funds from their varied accounts.”
Blake said that an all too common situation is observing an elderly customer making large withdrawals, especially involving cash, outside of their regular banking habits. “In some cases, a family member or friend may be using undue influence to gain access to a customer’s bank assets,” he said.
Scams and Financial Abuse
Many criminals find older adults an extremely attractive target. With the U.S. senior population controlling about $18 trillion in assets, there is no shortage of scammers who want that money, says AARP. Like many types of crooks, financial fraudsters are first-rate con artists.
The majority of victims are older people who have no family or friends nearby and may be people with disabilities, memory problems or more moderate dementia, says the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
“Abuse will not stop on its own, someone needs to step in and help,” states the NIA website.
WSB-TV recently reported on a 90-year-old grandmother from Wisconsin who received multiple calls telling her that her grandson was in terrible trouble. Sadly, she believed the Georgia caller.
According to Channel 2 reporter Tom Jones’ report, the woman was asked to send money to an address in south Fulton County. It turned out to be unoccupied rental property. Fortunately for her, the property owner, a good Samaritan, got there first, found $8,000 in the mailbox and contacted the police.
Over time, however, the woman had sent more than $54,000 to several addresses given to her by the scammer. Jones said that he was told the family does not “trust calls from people they don’t know,” any longer. They hung up on him!
It is good advice—hang up if you don’t know the caller and contact local law enforcement if you sense a scamming problem.
The Caller-ID Equivalent of Wearing A Mask
Spoofing is when a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to your caller ID display to disguise their identity, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Scammers often use spoofing to make it appear that an incoming call is coming from a local number, perhaps a neighbor, or spoof a number from a company or a government agency that you may already know and trust.
Today’s bad guys can make any phone number look like another. Callers sound convincing. And they probably have already obtained some personal information.
Once the call is answered, they often try to seriously frighten their victims. The best thing to do is stay calm, don’t share any personal information and get off the phone as soon as possible.
Of course, once you’re off the phone, reach out to family or friends to verify any information about requests for money. If it looks like a scam, call your local police non-emergency number.
See Something, Say Something
Georgia’s Division of Aging Services has a link on their website, Aging.Ga.Gov, to report Elder Abuse. The organization says that at-risk adult abuse can take on varied forms, including:
Financial abuse or exploitation—Improperly or illegally using a person’s resources for the benefit of another person, for example, using a Power of Attorney to gain access to an adult’s assets for personal gain or using undue influence. It can also be false representation and other means to gain access to an adult’s monthly government checks.
Physical abuse—The use of physical force to coerce or to inflict bodily harm. It often, but not always, causes physical discomfort, pain or injury. It may include the willful deprivation of essential services, such as medical care, food or water.
Emotional abuse—The use of tactics, such as harassment, insults, intimidation, isolation or threats that cause mental or emotional anguish, diminishing a person’s sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.
Neglect—When caregivers refuse or fail to provide essential services (food, water, shelter, medical care, etc.) to the degree that it harms or threatens to harm an older and/or disabled adult.
Self-neglect—When older adults fail to perform essential self-care. This can be by depriving oneself of necessities such as food, water or medication. Consciously putting oneself in harm’s way or being unable to handle needs of day-to-day living because of medical, mental health or other disabilities. Self-neglect is not a crime.
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.