Public awareness can curb elder abuse

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Lance Taylor

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July is Elder Abuse Awareness Month. Why is that significant? Studies show that in up to 90 percent of elder abuse cases, the abuser is a family member or trusted advisor. According to AARP, the financial exploitation of the elderly costs as much as $2.6 billion per year.

As part of its findings at the beginning of its recently enacted Elder Justice Act, Congress stated that the "proportion of the United States population age 60 years or older will drastically increase in the next 30 years as more than 76,000,000 baby boomers approach retirement and old age." It further noted, "Each year between 500,000 and five million elders in the United States are abused, neglected or exploited." And perhaps most importantly, "most cases ... are never reported."

What is elder abuse? It comes in many forms. The Illinois Department of Aging identifies seven types that, in reality, are not mutually exclusive: physical, sexual, emotional, confinement, passive neglect, willful deprivation and financial exploitation.

Examples: a Chicago attorney got a call from a bank that his client wanted to withdraw $800,000 to give to his caretaker. The caretaker had already induced him to sign over valuable Canadian property. Fortunately, the caretaker is now in a Canadian jail.

Then there was the Georgia case in which the decedent's daughter and her boyfriend "cared" for her mother to gain access to her Social Security checks. In the process, the mother died of extreme neglect. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld a conviction "for felony murder and cruelty to an elderly person."

At the state level, the majority of states now mandate reporting by professionals and providers who care for seniors.

The Illinois statute is the Elder Abuse and Neglect Act. Under its terms, any person who suspects abuse of someone over 60 can make a report to identified local agencies or the Department of Aging.

Certain mandated reporters, such as people engaged in social services, law enforcement and various licensed professions, have to report a belief of elder abuse within 24 hours. And any such reporter is immune from criminal or civil liability or professional disciplinary action for having made the report.

In Oak Park and River Forest, the critical agency is Oak Park Township Senior Services. The phone number is 708-383-8060.

Despite all of these crucial legal developments, the General Accounting Office has reported that the single most effective way to identify elder abuse victims is by public awareness.

So what should we be looking for? Among other things, unexplained signs of injury, unusual weight loss, malnutrition or dehydration, significant withdrawals from an elder's accounts or sudden changes in the senior's financial condition and evidence of overmedication or under-medication.

Each of us can help improve the quality of life for vulnerable seniors by being as mindful as possible of their circumstances. As George Harrison wrote years ago, "Even if you're old and gray ... you've still got something to say."

Lance Taylor is an Oak Park resident and attorney who practices elder law.

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