Elder Abuse Detection: the Vital Role of the Physician

Flowers in Stone

Colorado physicians are mandatory reporters under the Colorado elder abuse statute.  See Colo. Rev. Stat. §18-6.5-108(1)(a) – (1)(b).

There is typically a lot of shame and guilt around abuse or exploitation with an elder victim, particularly when the abuse is perpetrated by an adult child or family member of the elder and the elder may be reluctant to take any protective action on their own.  The elder often suffers alone and in silence and will sometimes neglect themselves as a result.  Remember that we don’t really have any firm grasp on how rampant elder abuse or exploitation is in our country due a number of factors which include: the reluctance of a victim to self-report; the variety of state law definitions of what constitutes elder abuse; and a lack of any central clearinghouse for collection of state or federal data concerning reports of elder abuse (in its different aspects).

Financial exploitation, emotional or physical abuse tend to have serious and life-shortening health effects for an elder.  Remember that a 2009 JAMA article on Elder Self-Neglect and Abuse and Mortality Risk stated that elders who have been abused have a 300% higher risk of death compared to their age cohort of those who have not suffered such abuse.  This is most certainly a health issue for at-risk elders and this fact makes it that much more important that doctors, particularly ER (or ED) doctors be trained to recognize the signs of abuse or self-neglect resulting from mistreatment.

The ER doctor sees not just the immediate physical effects or injuries of a physical abuse or emotional abuse (spiking blood pressure, increasing risk of stroke or heart attack) but they also see the effects of depression and other factors which both contribute to an elder’s isolation and vulnerability and are the ongoing results and manifestations of the elder’s victimization.

A recent Kaiser Health news article recently highlighted findings from a study in New York on increasing ER doctors’ awareness of signs of elder abuse.  Some of the training is around going behind the explanation of the injuries – usually from a fall or some other accident, and asking questions which may uncover the abuse which caused the “accident” and its injuries.  We have a long way to go to train more ER doctors to be up and running mandatory reports.  Doctors have made huge strides in recognizing other “accidents” or injuries resulting from domestic violence and child abuse and we need to have the same strides made for the detection and reporting of elder abuse.  It’s time!  We need to connect the ER doctors more effectively with the agencies involved in assisting victims – adult protection services and law enforcement agencies.

Here is an informative pdf from Florida State University’s National Prevention Toolkit on Domestic Violence for Medical Professionals. You might think it has to do with domestic violence, but it is a document that looks at each of the fifty states’ laws on reporting elder physical abuse. It identifies the reporting law for elder abuse, identifies who are the mandatory reporters (especially physicians and other health care professional) and provides some detail concerning the applicable civil and criminal statutes.

Why is it important to empower doctors with this information? An article from 2015 on physician screening for elder abuse observed:

Healthcare workers, more specifically Emergency Department physicians, are in a unique position in which they can not only screen and detect elder abuse in their patients, but also can change the abusive situation and prevent its continuation.

A brief article on emergency department care (filed under elder abuse treatment and management) urges doctors to take the time needed to assess a suspicious situation, noting that elders do not usually self-report and observing there may be concerns around balancing autonomy and safety.  Referral to APS is noted as “vital to decrease morbidity.”

Physicians and other health care professionals can provide important, necessary and perhaps life-saving medical care to victims of elder abuse.  Here is a link to a webinar on the ElderJustice.gov site to a webinar entitled “How EMTs Can Help Identify and Report Elder Abuse.”  When there is widely available training of medical professionals about how to ask and what to ask an elder on this difficult topic and there is also familiarity with available reporting units (APS or law enforcement) and sources for service referrals to assist the elder, elders in our community will be better served and the community will have another valuable resource for reporting incidents of abuse.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

What If We Declared a War on Elder Abuse?

Diana in Venice

What will it take to raise the public’s awareness of the prevalence of elder abuse? Here is a recent New York Times article about a woman from Washington state, a granddaughter of a victim of elder financial exploitation, who has made her mission in life to secure further legal protection for vulnerable elders.  I tip my hat to the Elder Law Profs blog for the mention of this article.  For this post, I’m focusing primarily on financial fraud and exploitation of elders.

Colorado statistics over the last several years (since the change in law concerning mandatory reporting of elder abuse and investigation by law enforcement) indicate the numbers continue to rise dramatically.  Read this Denver Post article from last fall with some of the breathtaking numbers in Colorado.  The national numbers are a bit more complicated, due in part to the variances of state laws concerning elder abuse – not all states have made it a crime to financially exploit an elder, as well as how such crimes get reported.  In Colorado, law enforcement and county adult protective services are part of the investigative framework for suspected elder abuse and some district attorneys’ offices have specialized prosecutors for such crimes.  The federal law, the Elder Justice Act – about which I have previously written, could provide an important means for developing a more systematic approach to reporting (among other important things) remains only partly funded.

A 2011 study published by MetLife Mature Market Institute estimates the financial loss by victims of elder financial crimes and exploitation exceeds $2.9 billion dollars annually, but this number remains controversial as other studies have estimated $17 billion or $36 billion.  Read about the variety of those numbers here.

How do we define fraud on elders?  That is a big part of the problem with a lack of any “standardized” way to identify such fraud and abuse so as to generate reportable numbers for particular types of fraud and abuse.  One thing that most are certain of is that the exploitation and fraud are both widely underreported –due to the shame and embarrassment factor, particularly when the perpetrator is a family member, friend or neighbor (occupying a position of trust).

Know the risk factors

Forbes recently ran an article by John Wasik that had a great summary of four of these which consider the elder’s behavior:

  • Poor Physical Health. Those who are physically compromised are unlikely to be focused on financial matters. They are often vulnerable to swindles.
  • Cognitive Impairment. When the ability to do basic things like read a banking statement or balance a checkbook declines, that’s when you have to pay attention. Those with declining math skills will not be asking important questions about new investing “opportunities.”
  • Difficulty in Activities of Daily Living. If a person has trouble feeding themselves, bathing or shopping, that’s a big set of red flags. That also means that they will have trouble managing money.
  • Social Isolation.Are they all alone? Then they won’t have the support of a network of peers, who could warn about scams.

Recognize the signs

The signs are of course numerous and varied, but keep in mind that there are many ways in which the behavior of the perpetrator of the fraud or exploitation of the elder mimics that of a perpetrator of domestic violence.

  • Use and abuse of control of the elder’s finances, such as taking, misusing, or using without the elder’s knowledge or permission their money or property;
  • Forging, forcing, or using deception, coercion or undue influence to get an elder person’s signature on a legal document – this could include signing over title to a home or other asset, or a power of attorney or a will;
  • Forging or otherwise forcing, or using deception or other inappropriate means to misappropriate funds from a pension or other retirement income, to cash an elder’s checks without permission or authorization;
  • Abusing joint signature authority on a bank account or misusing ATMs or credit cards;
  • Exploitation through a fiduciary relationship – such as an agent under a financial power of attorney acting beyond the scope of the agent’s authority, or improperly using the authority provided by a conservatorship, trust, etc.
  • Misleading an elder by providing true but misleading information that influences the elder person’s use or assignment of assets, persuading an impaired elder person to change a will or insurance policy to alter who benefits from the will or policy;
  • Promising long-term or lifelong care in exchange for money or property and not following through on the promise, overcharging for or not delivering caregiving services; and
  • Denying elders access to their money or preventing them from controlling their assets or gaining information about their assets.

Keep in mind that neither of these lists is comprehensive or exhaustive!

Report suspected abuse, exploitation or fraud

If you aren’t sure who to call and the situation doesn’t require a 911 call, use the National Center on Elder Abuse’s resource page to determine who to call.

The only way we will get a better handle on the extent and pervasiveness of elder financial abuse and exploitation is to become more familiar with it so that we know how to ask those whom we seek to protect.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org