When is it elder abuse — and when is it an adult child trying to make arrangements for a parent who is losing the ability to cope with the daily activities of living?
Every day, police and social workers and others face these decisions, and last week, it was my turn. It was pure coincidence that a friend was checking into a small hotel and ran into an elderly woman sitting in the lobby and crying. After she calmed down, she explained — and her story was backed up by the desk clerk — that her daughter had come with a power of attorney and the police, and had moved her husband of 62 years to a nursing facility. She said they wouldn't let her come to visit.
She was staying alone in the hotel, with a little money and their small dog. When she revealed that she and her husband had a substantial sum of money in the bank as a result of selling their home, I grew more concerned. Financial elder abuse is a growing crime. Sadly, the statistics reveal that elder abuse is almost always a family crime.
The most recent reliable study of elder abuse was done by the National Center on Elder Abuse in 2005. But according to that report, between 1 million and 2 million Americans age 65 or older have been injured, exploited or otherwise mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care or protection.
It's as difficult to imagine a family taking advantage of an elderly parent as it is to imagine parents who would abuse their children. But it happens with even more frequency in these tough economic times.
How could anyone who suspects this kind of treatment stand by and not get involved? That certainly wasn't something I could forget. So I called the local suburban police department, and police and a social worker came right over to interview the woman. She was distraught but able to answer all their questions. Because of the woman's allegations that the daughter now controlled her bank account, an investigation was opened, and I left satisfied that her complaints would be heard.
The next day, I went back to the hotel, drove her to the nursing home and witnessed a very tender reunion with her husband. I also met her daughter, an aide at the facility, and heard the other side of the story. She said she had no choice, as her father is suffering from Alzheimer's and her mother could not take care of him. She gave me a long list of their dangerous experiences and her multiple interventions in their living conditions. She was hoping to move her mother into the assisted-living section of the nursing home, keeping them at least in the same building. And she would use their money to pay for it, saying she didn't want a penny for herself.
So what was the final word, you might be wondering? I cannot really tell you yet how it will work out, or whom I believed most. The police are still investigating the financial aspects, social services will stay on top of the situation — and I promised to visit again to make sure her move in to the assisted-living facility goes smoothly. I left them holding hands, agreeing that being near each other was most important.
You can't have participated in this experience without thinking about yourself and your family. What plans have you made? What documents have you executed? What relative or friend do you trust to make these decisions for you — when you are least able to be heard, and most likely to be confused and resentful of changes forced on you?
Now is the time to make a revocable living trust, naming a successor trustee to handle your financial affairs if you are in an accident or unable to make decisions for yourself. And now is the time to create a health care power of attorney and a living will. And if you need help finding resources to do this, I recommend going to www.naela.org — the National Association of Elder Law Attorneys. There you can find links to a list of elder law specialists in your community.
And if you suspect elder abuse, contact the National Center on Elder Abuse, a part of the U.S. Administration on Aging, at ncea.aoa.gov, or contact them at 855-500-3537 (ELDR).
Their website home page has quick links to both statistics and resources in every state, including telephone hotlines to report abuse. And for eldercare resources in your community available to those who have elderly parents or neighbors, go directly to eldercare.gov.