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Elder abuse

  • Photo illustration by David Rowe
    Photo illustration by David Rowe
Published July 03. 2010 09:00AM

As the baby boomer generation ages, the instances of elderly abuse - financial, physical and emotional - are rising, too.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Elder Abuse Unit saw a 60 percent increase in elder abuse complaints this year.

The number of calls or complaints received by the state has soared from "about 25 per month in 2006, when Attorney General Corbett first created our Elder Abuse Unit, to the current level of about 200 per month," said spokesman Nils Frederiksen.

Most prolific are money scams that target seniors.

"Pennsylvania has the third highest percentage of elderly residents in the United States with nearly two million residents over the age of 65," Attorney General Tom Corbett said. "Sadly, senior citizens are favored targets for many kinds of consumer fraud including identity theft, and scams involving charities, telemarketing and sweepstakes."

It's a scam retired Navy veteran Richard McGinley of Lehighton knows all too well. Last fall, he received in the mail a $4,700 check enclosed in a typed letter. The letter, from Southern Trust Financial Inc., Canada, said he'd won $250,000 in an international sweepstakes. The check was to pay the taxes owed on his "winnings."

All McGinley had to do, the letter said, was to cash the check. But McGinley, who deflected a similar scam several years ago, was suspicious. He took the check to Jim Thorpe National Bank, where a customer relations officer advised him to not cash it.

Sometimes, the financial abuse is more insidious.

In Schuylkill County, a Pottsville couple was charged with befriending an elderly Mahanoy City man, then siphoning $84,000 from his bank accounts as he slipped further into Alzheimer's disease.

"We believe there are several factors responsible for that increase (in elder abuse), including an increase in financial and other scams targeted at seniors across the country," Frederiksen said. "Pennsylvania has the third highest percentage of seniors, so our state has always been a target, but improvements in technology have made it easier to create and circulate scam offers and fake checks."

The National Center on Elderly Abuse cites a 2009 study that estimated that at least $2.6 billion annually is lost to financial exploitation of elderly.

Tip of the iceberg:

The reported cases may be just the tip of the iceberg. Frederiksen said that "not every case involving elder abuse gets reported to our office. Many are handled at the county level, by district attorneys, or through action by the state Department of Aging."

However, National Center on Elderly Abuse spokeswoman Sharon Merriman-Nai said it's difficult to define the scope of victimization.

"The problem is that each state has its own reporting and tracking system. There is no centralized tracking of numbers nationally," she said.

Merriman-Nai said a 2010 study of older adults showed that about 11 percent had been mistreated in the previous 12 months. "The study did not encompass people who have dementia," she said. Those with dementia "are at greater risk (for abuse), and also are less likely to report it. If they do report abuse, they may not be believed."

A 1998 National Elder Abuse Incidence study found that elder abuse is significantly under-identified and underreported, and that as few as one in six cases come to the attention of authorities.

Often, victims are too ashamed or embarrassed to report the abuse, especially if the abuser is a family member. They worry they will be put into a nursing home, or are afraid the abuse will get worse if they report it.

Merriman-Nai also said that victims of abuse may tend to die earlier than they would have had they not been victimized. "Several studies have substantiated that people who have been victimized are more at risk for premature death than those who were not," she said.

Substantiating complaints:

However, Carbon County Area Agency on Aging Administrator Cheri Santore cautions that not all reports are substantiated.

"I concur that there is an increase in complaints regarding elder abuse, but not necessarily as rise in the occurrence of abuse. What I mean by this is we have had a great increase in investigations, but that elder abuse is not always substantiated," she said.

The agency follows strict state guidelines when investigating abuse reports. "We conduct our investigations under the Older Americans Protective Service Act," she said. The criteria are that the victim be over the age of 60; be a Pennsylvania resident; have no responsible caregiver; be at imminent risk and are unable/incapable to seek obtain or seek assistance on their own.

"When we receive a complaint of elder abuse, it is documented as a 'report of need'. If from the initial information that is provided we can determine that the consumer does not meet the criteria, then there is no investigation completed," Santore said. "If there is not enough information from the initial call, which is what normally happens, then we complete the investigation to gain the necessary information to make a determination. A consumer cannot refuse the actual investigation. However, if they are determined to be in need of protective services following an investigation, they still have the right to refuse protective services."

If the agency investigates a case that fails to meet the criteria, it is not considered elder abuse under the Act and the Area Agency on Aging's role in that. However, we do make criminal referrals as necessary to assist in our investigations and make referrals when it does not meet our criteria," she said. "Sometimes through the investigation, it is discovered that someone may not meet our criteria for protective services, but are in need of some type of services from our agency or the community. Again, those referrals are made. We also take Reports of Need on people who are between the ages of 18-59. We do not investigate these reports. However, we do make appropriate referrals."

Santore said she believes the "increase in the actual investigations is from our outreach to the community and the educational information that is out there to report any suspected elder abuse. Our protective service unit here in Carbon County is composed of one worker, who also carries a care management caseload. When we receive an increase in Protective Service reports, we need to pull all staff available to complete these. These are seen by the Department of Aging as a priority and as a mandate. This just recently happened to our agency in May. We received a Report of Need almost every day for a 10-day period."

The agency's average rate of receiving Reports of Need is one to two a month. "This has increased to about one to two per week in the last 60 days," Santore said. "It is too early to tell whether this is going to be a trend or just a coincidence that this many reports have come in recently."


The state Office of the Attorney General, in addition to creating the Elder Abuse Unit, has developed a "Senior Crime Prevention University." The program is a "traveling school, offered free of charge to any interested organization, which teaches people about the most common forms of scams and fraud," Frederiksen said. "The materials are based on the calls/complaints that we receive. The topics include sweepstakes scams, fake checks and fraudulent mailings, home improvement rip offs, Power of Attorney abuse (financial exploitation), questionable charitable solicitations and identity theft."

To schedule a presentation for a civic group or organization, register online at or call (717) 787-9713.

The federal government has also made efforts to ramp up the fight against elderly abuse.

In March, the Elder Justice Act was signed into law as part of health care reform legislation. The legislation was the first-ever federal coordination of efforts to prevent elderly abuse. The Act provides money for research, worker training for adult protective services, elder abuse forensic studies and an ombudsman to supervise the program.

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