Eye on Elderly

SHOALS – Keeping better tabs on our older family members and neighbors may be a wise thing to do for more than the obvious reasons. New research confirms that as we age we become more susceptible to abuse and financial fraud. Those statistics are supported by medical researchers, elder justice advocates and geriatric experts from various disciplines. The problem is often exacerbated by a trusting nature, telephone/computer access, and aging seniors who may live or spend extended periods of time alone.

However, elder abuse can also be much closer to home. Often, an otherwise trusted family member with access to a checkbook, bank account, or social security check may abuse that privilege and trust.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is June 15. Therefore, this is a good time to become more aware and keep a few things in mind.

One in ten Americans age 60 and older experiences abuse according to National Council on Aging estimates. However, they also report that only about 7% of cases are reported to authorities. In addition, those who are abused are three times as likely to die earlier than they would otherwise.

There are several types of elder abuse according to the NCA, Among those are theft, physical, sexual, emotional, neglect, confinement, and withholding of medication, food, etc.

“Primarily, the cases we do are financial exploitation,” Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly said. “It’s typically relative-related. A relative gets into their bank account and they’re left destitute.”

Officials with the Department of Human Resources confirmed that there are usually around 40 cases of elder abuse being investigated locally at any one time. Those do not include investigations of abuse when seniors are still considered to be of sound mind. Those cases would fall outside the area of responsibility for DHR.

If elders are alone with no close family members, there is usually not someone officially in charge of his or her finances. The elderly person may reach a point mentally where he or she can no longer make sound financial or health-related decisions. If they have not been legally designated incompetent by a court and someone designated as conservator and/or guardian, that often leaves them vulnerable.

A guardianship gives one or more people the legal authority to make health-related decisions for another person. A conservatorship is a legal relationship that gives one or more individuals the authority to make financial decisions on behalf of an incompetent or incapacitated person.

Hailey Killen, a social worker for the Adults Protective Services Unit of the Department of Human Resources, points out that when an elderly person is not of sound mind and does not have someone in conservatorship, they very likely do not have a guardian either.

If a family member is not available to help an elderly resident, officials must file a protective placement petition with the courts. She also noted that Lauderdale currently does not have guardian.

The social workers, guardian ad litem, and judge come together to make decisions in those cases. The judge signs for medical treatment if it is needed.

“If we had a county guardian, it would be easy for that guardian to just say, ‘I’m going to order this,’” Killen added.

Social worker, Terri Griffin, explained that it is difficult to get a nursing home to take a patient who does not have a guardian. “Placement becomes an issue as well.”

When an older person begins to make judgement errors with finances routinely, it may be time to keep a closer eye on them. There is discussion about energizing efforts to have a local volunteer guardian program.

“We’ve talked about trying to partner with the Retired Senior Volunteer Program to try to find a pool of volunteers who would be willing to serve in that capacity,” Connolly said.

DHR employees and One Place officials will wear Elder Abuse Awareness T-shirts on Friday, June 14 since Elder Abuse day is on Saturday. The T-shirts are also on sale to the public with proceeds to benefit One Place. Anyone interested in a shirt can call 256-765-4000.

Anyone who suspects a case of elder abuse may also call 256-765-4000 to report that anytime 24/7.