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A Crying Shame

Along with the “silver tsunami”—the flood of baby boomers reaching retirement age—came another boom: elder abuse.

As far back as the early 2000s, former police chief Pete Carey returned from a conference intent on getting ahead of this growing trend. He created the “Crimes Against At-Risk Adults” unit at the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD). Detective Chuck Szatkowski is a member of that unit, along with another detective and a civilian caseworker.

Yet in 2018, there were more than 3,500 calls reporting elder abuse. Some came through the 911 system. Others come from medical professionals, social workers, and clergy. Many also come from family or friends of the victim. “We get calls every day,” Szatkowski says. The complaints include self-neglect, caretaker neglect, physical or sexual abuse, and exploitation. CSPD deals with criminal activity, such as physical or sexual abuse and caretaker neglect. A financial crimes unit deals with fraud. The self-neglect cases go to Adult Protective Services at El Paso County’s Department of Human Services (DHS).

DHS also handles all the other forms of abuse as well, says Aric Bidwell, adult and family services manager for the county. There are two criteria: it must involve an at-risk adult—that is “any person who can’t seek or obtain services on their own”—and it must fall into one of the previously mentioned categories. The only type of abuse not covered by the mandate is emotional abuse unless that abuse is being rendered by a primary caretaker.

Unfortunately, self-neglect isn’t something that can be controlled, no matter how squalid the conditions or self-injurious the person’s lifestyle may be. “We often hear ‘We called the police, and they didn’t do anything,’ but competent adults can’t be forced to accept services. Unless there’s an indication that there’s a capacity issue, then it can go to probate court to have a guardian appointed,” Szatkowski says.

Although neglect in care facilities gets the most attention, it also is the most rare. “It’s really most common in homes,” Bidwell says. “We have facility investigations, but [if there’s an issue] I’d say, most of the time, it’s not an employee but another resident. It’s not common that we find a facility or staff member is at fault. It can happen, certainly, but that’s not the norm. Most often, physical abuse is perpetrated in the home by either a caretaker or family member.”

Although family members who act as caretakers can become frustrated or exhausted, trained facility workers know how to deal with difficult personalities and challenging medical situations, he adds. “We tell people, ‘You’ve got to ask for help. It’s OK.’” In addition, Bidwell thinks many cases go unreported. “I think what is reported to us is maybe half of what is happening.”

Not all abuse victims understand they are being abused, Bidwell says. And some are too afraid of getting a loved one in trouble or losing their caretaker to report it, Szatkowski adds.

Most elder abuse reports come in to the CSPD or the sheriff’s office with referrals made to DHS as needed. If the process sounds scattered, it isn’t. In 2005, Szatkowski and others formed the Pikes Peak Elder Abuse Coalition, a collaborative effort among regional agencies, nonprofits, and businesses. Members play a proactive role in finding ways to help elders who may be abused, neglected, or exploited, including setting up an emergency elder shelter program (with help from 14 local nursing facilities). And if legal action needs to be taken, the district attorney’s office gets involved.

To Get Help

If there is an emergency—a life-threatening situation—call 911.

If reporting an incident or ongoing situation, call 444-7000, and your call will be directed to the proper person.

Attorneys Help Sort Out Issues

When elder abuse includes taking the victim’s money or other assets, that’s when lawyers often come in.

“If someone detects that a person is being taken advantage of, we look for an immediate solution,” says Rabea Taylor, who usually handles estate law for the firm Lewis Kuhn Swan. “Maybe an agent or guardian is observing the abuse, and we can counsel them on what to do. If the guardian is committing the abuse, we can help get the power of attorney changed. The typical civil remedies include going straight to the court for theft or undue influence. Then we can ask for an injunction to freeze bank accounts.”

The target often is financial assets, says Catherine Seal of Kirtland & Seal. She’s a court-appointed public administrator and private elder law attorney. Exploitation of senior citizens can come from another family member, friend, caretaker, or even clergy, she says.

Financial exploitation, often accompanied by emotional abuse, not only drains the victim’s bank account, “it can cause extreme stress, loss of trust, fear, depression, and hopelessness,” Seal says. “At this point in their lives, they can’t recover those (monetary) losses.”

Seal advises anyone concerned about an elderly person to watch for two common scams: the new best friend and the sweetheart scam. “The victim often is an elderly man, recently widowed, who is not prepared to live on his own. I cringe when I hear a senior say, ‘She’s like the daughter I never had.’ Big alert!”

It is essential that aging adults assign a power of attorney, Taylor says. But, Seal adds, be careful who you choose. “Don’t choose the oldest child just because they are the oldest. Choose the one who is good with money. Don’t choose someone close to your own age. Don’t just fill out some form online. Go to a lawyer, and get one that says what the agent can and can’t do with your money. Make them accountable to someone else,” she advises.

Greed can lead to physical neglect, too. “Sometimes, an agent doesn’t want to fill prescriptions…or leaves an elderly person home alone all day because they don’t want to spend what they see as their inheritance,” Seal says.

When assigning power of attorney, Seal adds, “think about who’s trustworthy and knows you well enough to handle your money the way you would if you were capable.”