As Washington’s senior population rises, elder abuse is increasingly becoming an issue on Puget Sound area officials and caretakers’ radars. Advocates throughout the nation are calling on states to increase public awareness of elder abuse and for courts to respond to the epidemic.
Federal data obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting showed that adult protective services throughout the country conducted over 713,000 elder-abuse investigations in fiscal year 2017, with nearly a third of the cases identifying victims of abuse or self-neglect. In Washington, reported elder-abuse cases increased from 19,000 in 2012 to 49,000 in 2017.
Although the soaring number of cases concerns Mary Lynn Pannen—founder and CEO of Washington-based Geriatric care management firm Sound Options—she said that the increased reporting is also a result of better data collection. Pannen has seen progress in the state’s response to elder abuse since she worked as the head of a Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department counsel that focused on the issue 35 years ago. “It is a silent crime, because you’ve got frail adults that are living at home for the most part,” said Pannen. “Some of them are unable to handle their own affairs, and they have people that come along their way and take advantage of them.”
Over the past 30 years, Pannen and her staffers at Sound Options have consulted families throughout the Puget Sound region on caring for older adults. Employees at offices in Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia help caretakers create and execute care plans, work with elder law attorneys, and advocate on behalf of people in hospitals or community facilities. Staffers are trained to be keenly aware of elder-abuse cases, which usually manifest as financial exploitation.
One recent incident that her staffers observed involved the son of a client who gradually extracted money from his mother’s bank account. Other clients can be vulnerable to repeated instances of abuse. For instance, six months ago they were alerted to a case in which a caregiver exploited a client by inviting her boyfriend and animals to live in the house, Pannen shared. The client then hired another caregiver who convinced the client to sell her house and deed it to her. The caregiver then impoverished the homeowner by stealing $200,000 from her, Pannen said. She has also seen instances of neglect, such as when staffers discovered that a husband was withholding food and water from his wife.
Staffers are customarily contacted by elder law attorneys or neighbors who suspect the abuse. Staffers will then travel to the older adults’ homes to conduct assessments and ask the clients about their power of attorney and who has access to their bank account. They’ll look for red flags, such as bruises on the client or a refusal by family members or caretakers to allow the older adults to respond to the staffers’ inquiries. Once they’ve gathered enough information to suspect abuse, staffers will then report it to Adult Protective Services.
“One of the things to prevent abuse is to make sure that we can help de-stress the whole family unit, because caregiving is really hard,” Pannen said. “This is a serious issue and we need to have the public understand that.”
She’s found that abuse often goes unreported because older adults might feel shame or be unaware about the neglect or abuse they have faced at the hands of their own family members or caregivers. Her observation reflects national trends: the 2011 New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study estimated that 23.5 cases of abuse go unreported for every reported case.
In response to the epidemic, local agencies have bolstered protections for older adults in recent years. The Seattle Human Services Department’s Aging and Disability Services division (HSD/ADS) seeks to address the widespread issue by working with the Office of the King County Prosecuting Attorney and Adult Protective Services to provide older adults with financial, health, and legal services and safe housing in the face of abuse.
HSD/ADS’ Vulnerable Adult Program was created in 2011 to improve reporting of vulnerable adults by the Seattle Fire Department (SFD) and improve communication between departments that enforce laws and partners that provide senior services. The program consists of a partnership with SFD, Seattle Human Services/Aging and Disability Services, the Seattle Police Department, Adult Protective Services, and community organizations. “By working across departments, the program is one of the first of its kind, has [been] shown to work, and has been successful in getting care and services to vulnerable adults. We respond to an average of 35-45 reports per month by Seattle Fire Department,” HSD spokesperson Meg Olberding wrote.
According to Adult Protective Services’ (APS) data, King County’s efforts are helping increase elder-abuse reporting. APS reported a nearly 50 percent increase over the previous five years in reported allegations of elder abuse in 2014. In 2017, over 11,000 allegations were reported to APS in Region 2, which includes King County, with nearly 30 percent of the cases concerning financial exploitation.
In the future, Pannen hopes that preventative services such as Sound Options and other geriatric-care management firms will be used by families to curb the epidemic.