In 2017, Nebraska’s Adult Protective Services investigated 2,650 allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable adults. More than 230 of that total were age 60 or older. While the numbers are lower than 2016, a lot of elder abuse goes unreported.
“It’s like domestic violence,” said Carol Sinner, CHOICES supervisor at the Aging Office of Western Nebraska. “If we tell you five out of a hundred (are victims), there’s probably twice that many.”
Elder abuse can be domestic violence, such as spouse to spouse or adult child to parent.
“Unfortunately, when you have someone who is vulnerable to begin with and they are at the mercy of someone who cares for them, a lot goes undocumented,” Sinner said.
Elder abuse can also occur in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Sinner said an important aspect to look at when considering elder abuse is to look at the situation of the person and how well they can protect themselves.
When an elderly person is being abused, they may feel like they have no other choice. If the abuser is someone who takes care of them and is the only person they have to rely on, the victims are less likely to report the abuse.
“If she cusses me out or hits me, she is still coming to my house and I feel like I have to put up with it,” Sinner said. “I know if I report her and if she gets arrested, there is no one to take care of me.”
Many people don’t know what options are available so they can file a report. Many others don’t even know the abuse is wrong.
“They may not know it’s abuse or recognize it,” said Cheryl Brunz, executive director, Aging Office of Western Nebraska.
This occurs because when the word “abuse” is used, many people think of kicking or hitting another person.
“We’re talking about verbal, emotional abuse, financial exploitation and self-neglect,” Brunz said. “I don’t tell anyone that I don’t have money for food, am a hoarder or can’t do things I used to do because they are going to put me in a nursing home.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, by 2030, Nebraska’s population is projected to be 1,820,247 and Nebraskans over age 65 will be 375,811, or 20.6 percent, of the population. By then, one in five Nebraskans will be elderly. Those over age 85 will be the most rapidly growing elderly age group. Statistically, the most common victim of elder abuse is over age 75 and usually has one or two physical or emotional illnesses that puts them in a vulnerable situation. The time to be aware of elder abuse is now.
According to “Old Age and Decline in Financial Literacy,” by Texas Tech University, financial literacy declines by about 1 percent each year after age 60; however, an individual’s confidence in financial decision-making abilities does not decline with age.
In the Panhandle, the Aging Office of Western Nebraska sees a lot of financial exploitation and neglect. Sinner said if, for example, she was collecting $1,200 a month in Social Security benefits and Brunz has Sinner move in with her, Brunz could then say it costs $1,200 a month to take care of her.
“Then, if I fall and break a hip and go into the hospital, and the doctor says I think you should go to a nursing home because you’re getting frailer and need some rehab, Cheryl can say 'No, I want to take care of her at home,’” Sinner said.
That puts health care professionals in a tough spot as well. They may see the person is hesitating, but there is a legal, fine line to walk.
It also isn’t as simple as saying, “I think someone should go to a nursing home” and forcing them to do so. An adult needs to be deemed vulnerable. In order to identify someone as vulnerable, they need to have an identifiable developmental or cognitive disability.
“We can all make poor choices on our own,” Sinner said. “That doesn’t mean you’re vulnerable.”
In July 2013, former Kimball city councilman Scott Haun agreed to a plea agreement on charges of theft of property and attempted abuse of a vulnerable adult, both Class I misdemeanors. According to court documents, a plea agreement in the case was entered on July 22 and Haun was sentenced on the same date. The plea agreement called for the initial charges of theft of property, a Class II felony, and abuse of a vulnerable adult, a Class IIIA felony, to be reduced. The plea agreement included a written admission from Haun and an agreement that he pay back $19,284 to Doris Anderson, of Kimball.
Haun served as Anderson’s conservator and guardian for 18 months. During that time, he transferred funds from the Anderson’s probate account to a different bank account at Platte Valley Bank in Scottsbluff. A Nebraska State Patrol investigator had compared reports that Haun had submitted as conservator and found he was inflating costs for expenditures — such as payments for the woman’s boarding at a Kimball nursing home — to cover up taking funds for his own use. The thefts came to light when a Kimball attorney was contacted about irregularities in conservator accounts that Haun oversaw and Haun was removed as Anderson’s conservator.
A CHANGE IN THE LAW TO PROTECT THE VULNERABLE AND REDUCE ELDERLY ABUSE
Some elderly people who need assistance will not turn themselves in because they are afraid of the consequences, real or imagined. They may have had issues in the past but are now at a point in life where they can no longer deal with it on their own. In this case, a public guardian can be appointed.
Because more than 10,000 Nebraskans are already served by private guardians — many of whom are relatives, family friends or volunteers — the need for services for vulnerable adults continues to grow.
The Office of Public Guardian was created by state lawmakers in 2014 in reaction to a case in which Judith Widener, a private guardian in Bayard, who was convicted of embezzling state and federal funds from some of the 688 wards she had been assigned to by the courts. She was ordered to pay restitution of $25,857.66.
Widener had run Safe Haven Inc., a company that labeled itself online as a debt and credit counseling services company. Safe Haven Inc. employees, including Widener, also handled accounts of people appointed guardians by the court to oversee financial affairs. Tracking of cases involving the Assistance to Aged, Blind and Disabled (AABD) Program, a program administered by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, were first alerted to issues involving Widener. Officials with the Nebraska Auditor of Public Accounts observed several issues in the 91 individual cases. Issues included Widener receiving checks from the State of Nebraska on behalf of wards that she was no longer serving, including dead clients.
The Office of Public Guardian reported that as of the end of November 2017, it was serving 237 elderly and disabled adults who cannot manage their own affairs. Under a state law that created the office, a maximum of 300 adult wards can be served by the state’s 20 public guardians. The office has launched a pilot waiting list.
A recent report to the Legislature and the Supreme Court indicated that the need for guardianship services is expected to increase over time. Nebraska had 240,000 residents over age 65 in 2010. By 2030, the number is projected to increase to 400,000. According to the report, a significant portion of those adults will likely have no trusted relative or friend to serve as a guardian.
THINGS TO DO
If you suspect elder abuse, report it or make a phone call.
“They can call our office or Adult Protective Services, even if they just have suspicions,” Sinner said.
When a person calls the APS hotline, they can do so anonymously. APS will ask questions pertinent to your concerns. You can also request a welfare check from the police or the sheriff.
“A lot of times, you might have to be the squeaky wheel,” Sinner said.
If more than one person calls, it helps raises red flags. You can even call the Aging Office to ask if there is anything that can be done to help an elderly neighbor who may not be receiving assistance.
Elder abuse can also happen when someone comes forward and says she is worried about her aunt who has lost some cognitive abilities. She thinks her aunt needs to be on Medicaid and she wants to be her aunt’s provider. She calls and asks where she can get help, how she can get paid as a caregiver and what kind of assistance she and her aunt can receive. While many relatives truly want to help, there are some who are only looking for the financial gain and not the well-being of their loved one.
This is why, when anyone applies for Medicaid, the government will perform what is known as the “five-year lookback.” Any gifts or transfers of assets made within 60 months of the date of application are subject to penalties.
For example, if you wrote a $10,000 check to your son two years ago and your son is responsible for your care, there will be Medicaid penalties applied to that money.
This generation of elderly people also does not speak about what their last wishes are or what they would like done when it comes to medical and financial issues. Brunz has known people who have the finances to take care of themselves, but won’t spend the money because they are saving it for a rainy day, they know someone “worse off,” they plan to leave the money to their children or are slowly giving it away to a child that “had a tough go at life and needs some help.”
Medical and financial planning needs to be more than just spouses speaking to each other. Those wishes need to be spelled out so everyone is clear what will happen when the day arrives and you can no longer make decisions for yourself.
Many senior citizens today were never identified as having cognitive deficits and they were raised to not turn anyone in. Brunz said as awareness has been raised over the years, she expects baby boomers to be more aware of the signs and calling for help as needed.
“The adult children are more aware and have a tendency to be a little more suspicious (when abuse occurs),” Brunz said.
This can also be a hindrance as we live in a mobile society. Mom may live in Scottsbluff, but has no family here. Mom might have children in Mitchell, New York, California and Florida. The children suspect the sibling in Mitchell is exploiting and abusing their mother. The child in Florida makes a phone call to their mother to express their suspicions.
“You can have a conversation on the phone, but that doesn’t mean mom’s going to admit to anything,” Sinner said.
There is also the possibility the parent has dementia and doesn’t remember the abuse.
“You may have talked to mom last night and she’s fine,” Sinner said. That’s why a lot of them get involved in scams.”
In part two, readers will learn about recognizing elderly financial abuse, how to recognize it and where to look for help.