Exploitation of the Elderly is a Felony

by Becky Blanton on December 17, 2013 · 0 comments

One of the most depressing conversations I’ve had all year was with a Virginia State employee whose job it is to investigate crimes against the elderly. I knew people exploited, robbed, raped and brutalized the elderly. I just didn’t realize the abuse (here in Virginia and across the country) is “epidemic.”

She described some horrific conditions, abuses and assaults, and most were from a surprising source —family members and nursing homes. In the USA alone more than half a million cases of elder abuse are reported each year, but law enforcement officials suspect that more than a million or more cases are never reported. Strangers report some cases. For instance:

A 71-year-old grandmother in Texas was forced to beg outside a Wal-Mart for money. Her grandchildren, all teenagers, ages 19, 18 and under age 18 told her they didn’t have gas money and that she needed to beg for it. She initially refused, and told them they needed to get jobs, but they insisted. Passersby alerted police and the teens were arrested and charged with felony exploitation of the elderly.

There are worse incidents, many involving rape and physical assaults, beatings and torture. Fortunately the bulk of crimes against the elderly out in society involve financial crimes, and not physical abuse, rape and muggings, although those are prevalent too. However, both violent and non-violent crimes against the elderly continue to escalate. Financial crimes can leave the elderly vulnerable because losing their financial security and safety means they often lose their physical safety, or home as well.

All this abuse goes unnoticed because seniors don’t want to report the abuse for the same reason battered wives don’t report. They are afraid they’ll have nowhere to live, that they’ll be kicked out, become homeless, be battered or abused more or be killed. They believe that no one will believe them, that they’ll be put into a nursing home or mental institution, or that they’ll be drugged so they can’t report additional incidents.

Since most elder abuse, like child abuse, occurs in private homes, in secret, or within nursing home and care facilities where there are no witnesses, it’s hard to catch the abuse unless it’s reported.

Abuse goes unreported because many of the elderly don’t remember things – like time, names, faces or details. They may have varying levels of dementia. At best they unable to advocate for themselves as a younger adult would. At worst they do report but law enforcement and social services agencies are too overwhelmed, or state laws have no teeth and there is no one to investigate, charge or prosecute any but the most egregious offenses.

Elder abuse doesn’t have to be physical to be devastating. Emotional and mental abuse is very common. According to helpguide.org, and authors: Lawrence Robinson, Joanna Saisan, MSW, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. in a July 2013 article:

Elder abuse takes many forms. These tips from the helpguide.org website:
Verbal forms of emotional elder abuse include

  • Intimidation through yelling or threats
  • Humiliation and ridicule
  • Habitual blaming or scapegoating

Nonverbal psychological elder abuse can take the form of

  • Ignoring the elderly person
  • Isolating an elder from friends or activities
  • Terrorizing or menacing the elderly person

Sexual abuse

  • Physical sex acts with an elderly person without the elder’s consent
  • Showing an elderly person pornographic material
  • Forcing the person to watch sex acts
  • Forcing an elder to undress for someone’s sexual gratification

Healthcare abuse

  • Not providing healthcare, but charging for it
  • Overcharging or double-billing for medical care or services
  • Getting kickbacks for referrals to other providers or for prescribing certain drugs
  • Overmedicating or under medicating
  • Recommending fraudulent remedies for illnesses or other medical conditions
  • Medicaid fraud

Financial Exploitation

  • Misuse an elder’s personal checks, credit cards, or accounts
  • Steal cash, income checks, or household goods
  • Forge the elder’s signature
  • Engage in identity theft

As caregivers, social workers and medical professionals we all know that recognizing the signs of elder abuse is where intervention begins.
Some things to look for in your elderly patients, clients, friends, neighbor and family:

  • Frequent arguments or tension between the caregiver and the elderly person
  • Changes in personality or behavior in the elder

If you suspect elderly abuse, but aren’t sure, look for clusters of the following physical and behavioral signs.
Physical abuse

  • Unexplained signs of injury such as bruises, welts, or scars, especially if they appear symmetrically on two side of the body
  • Broken bones, sprains, or dislocations
  • Report of drug overdose or apparent failure to take medication regularly (a prescription has more remaining than it should)
  • Broken eyeglasses or frames
  • Signs of being restrained, such as rope marks on wrists
  • Caregiver’s refusal to allow you to see the elder alone

Emotional abuse
In addition to the general signs above, indications of emotional elder abuse include:

  • Threatening, belittling, or controlling caregiver behavior that you witness
  • Behavior from the elder that mimics dementia, such as rocking, sucking, or mumbling to oneself

Sexual abuse

  • Bruises around breasts or genitals
  • Unexplained venereal disease or genital infections
  • Unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding
  • Torn, stained, or bloody underclothing

Neglect by caregivers or self-neglect

  • Unusual weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration
  • Untreated physical problems, such as bed sores
  • Unsanitary living conditions: dirt, bugs, soiled bedding and clothes
  • Being left dirty or unbathed
  • Unsuitable clothing or covering for the weather
  • Unsafe living conditions (no heat or running water; faulty electrical wiring, other fire hazards)
  • Desertion of the elder at a public place

Financial exploitation

  • Significant withdrawals from the elder’s accounts
  • Sudden changes in the elder’s financial condition
  • Items or cash missing from the senior’s household
  • Suspicious changes in wills, power of attorney, titles, and policies
  • Addition of names to the senior’s signature card
  • Unpaid bills or lack of medical care, although the elder has enough money to pay for them
  • Financial activity the senior couldn’t have done, such as an ATM withdrawal when the account holder is bedridden
  • Unnecessary services, goods, or subscriptions

Healthcare fraud and abuse

  • Duplicate billings for the same medical service or device
  • Evidence of overmedication or under medication
  • Evidence of inadequate care when bills are paid in full
  • Problems with the care facility: poorly trained, poorly paid, or insufficient staff; crowding; inadequate responses to questions about care

Resources for Safer Seniors

These are links to PDF brochures you can print off and distribute to your senior friends, clients and patients. They offer a variety of commonsense and safe tips for avoiding becoming a victim. For more brochures go to the National Crime Prevention website:




Even if you don’t see, work or interact with the elderly now, chances are very good that in the future you will. Please take time to post these tips where others can see them, or discuss them with friends and family.

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