Leslea Rockers, special projects coordinator for the East Central Kansas Area Agency on Aging, fielded three calls from local seniors saying scam artists were trying to dupe them out of Medicare or Social Security payouts. While serious, such calls represent only one dynamic of elder abuse that could affect seniors in the area, Rockers said.
“It can be sexual, physical or emotional abuse, neglect or exploitation and it can take on fiduciary content, which could be identity theft, using credit cards or bank account information,” Rockers said of elder abuse. “We’ve had a lot more people directly report to us problems with fiduciary abuse.”
As the aging agency’s special project coordinator, Rockers responds primarily to financial elder abuse cases in Anderson, Coffey, Franklin, Linn, Miami and Osage counties, she said. And during her 12 years with the aging agency, Rockers said she receives several calls a week reporting elder abuse, whether it be physical or financial exploitation. While the details vary, she said, cases frequently relate to swindlers hoping to steal Medicare or Social Security funds.
“They’re the easy target, because that Social Security check is the one sure paycheck in this economy,” Rockers said. “[On Tuesday] another man said he had a phone call from someone saying he needed bank account information so his Social Security check would get deposited directly into his account, and he gave it to them. ... We made a report to the attorney general’s office.”
Spotting red flags
Only one in 25 financial exploitation cases is reported to authorities, the National Center on Elder Abuse estimates, suggesting that about 5 million seniors are financially exploited each year. To avoid becoming a victim, Rockers advised, people should not carry their Social Security or Medicare cards, in addition to being vigilant with whom they’re speaking to on the phone.
“I reiterate that Medicare and Social Security do not make calls to you,” Rockers said. “Any person who’s doing business on behalf of the government via a phone call is a red flag. ... Social Security notifies people in writing before they call, so asking for bank account information over the phone is a red flag. ... I know you think you’re being rude, but who cares, just hang up.”
Without comprehensive, large-scale tracking of mistreatment, accurate figures on the frequency of elder abuse are difficult to provide, the National Center on Elder Abuse said. It is estimated, however, that between 1 million and 2 million Americans age 65 or older have been injured, exploited or mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care or protection, the center reports. But for every case that is investigated, the center estimates another five go unreported.
In late November, Franklin County Sheriff Jeff Curry entreated the community to respond to elder abuse with the same fervor it did toward an older animal.
“I appreciate the concern that one elderly horse received,” Curry said previously. “My office received over 40 calls in regard to his well-being over the last two days. I would like to see this type of concern shown to the issue of elder abuse in our county as well. With this type of concern, I believe the weakest in our community would receive the care and need they deserve.”
In Kansas, the Department of Children and Family compiles reports of elder abuse via data provided by Adult Protective Services.
Between July 2011 and June 2012, the protection agency responded to 12,213 alleged elder abuse cases in Kansas, 53 percent of which related to neglect, physical abuse or exploitation. More than 41 percent of the total cases reported related to self-neglect investigations.
In its latest intake report, which took place from July 2012 to December 2012, Adult Protective Services reported 7,355 elder abuse cases, 84 of which took place in Franklin County.
Forms of abuse
The high frequency of self-neglect reports in Kansas concurs with the experience of Caren Rugg, who served as the agency’s community services coordinator for 18 years. During that time, Rugg said, she often dealt with self-neglect cases, where individuals were no longer able to care for themselves but were determined to remain independent.
“Self-neglect was by far the biggest problem that we dealt with,” Rugg said of her time with the aging agency. “That was older adults who really no longer have the physical ability or the mental capacity to remain living independently. ... It’s the person who really can’t remember if they ate breakfast or if they took their medication or if they turned the stove off — those are the people that require some intervention and help.”
Aside from self-neglect, the most frequent form of elder abuse Rugg encountered was caregiver neglect, she said. The average demographics of a caregiver, Rugg said, is a married female in her mid- to late-40s with children and aging parents she attempts to care for as well. As such, Rugg added, the caregiver is often burdened by other responsibilities that can distract from the job’s duties.
“The abuse or neglect that occurs with caregivers is most often unintentional — the person is stretched too thin,” Rugg said. “It’s not intentional abuse, but unintended neglect.”
While the neglect and financial abuse appear to be the most common in Franklin County, Rugg encouraged people be aware of all the forms elder abuse can take.
“Do not underestimate the actual physical or financial exploitation that went on because there was a lot of that,” Rugg said. “When it comes to physical or emotional abuse, a lot of times [seniors] view that family member as being their only link to remaining independent and staying at home. And if they say something or speak out, ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ ... The vulnerable deserve our attention and our efforts.”
Rugg said the community as a whole can help deter elder abuse by simply being more aware of neighbors, friends and family members.
“Check in on people,” Rugg said. “Just asking questions and looking into something doesn’t mean anything’s wrong. It just means that somebody is watching and someone is keeping an eye out. If your gut tells you that something is going on, then there’s probably something going on.”
Rockers agreed, adding that caregivers should also keep an eye on their family members’ physical appearance. And if something seems suspicious, she said, pick up the phone.
“Don’t ignore scrapes and bruises or changes in behavior,” Rockers said, adding that background checks on people entering seniors’ homes also help lessen the potential of abuse. “If you see something that doesn’t seem right, don’t ignore it. Make the phone call, and have someone check on it. You’d hate to live with a ‘I should have done that.’”
For more information on elder abuse or to report a case, call the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services at 1-800-922-5330.