Older people today are more visible, more active and more independent than ever before. They are living longer and are in better health. But as the older American population grows, so does the hidden problem of elder abuse.

Elder abuse is a serious problem in the United States. Every year an estimated 5 million older Americans are victims of physical, psychological or other forms of abuse and neglect. But as staggering as they are, these statistics may not tell the whole story. For every case of elder abuse and neglect reported to authorities, experts estimate as many as 23 cases go undetected.

The incidence of abuse can severely jeopardize the quality of life for older individuals, resulting in a decline in their functional and financial status, progressive dependency, poor self-rated health, feelings of helplessness and loneliness and increased psychological distress. Research also suggests that the mortality rate for older adults who have been abused is 300% greater than those who have not been abused, even in the absence of chronic conditions or life-threatening disease.

What Is Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse is an intentional act, or failure to act, that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older or a vulnerable adult. A vulnerable adult refers to an adult who lacks the physical or mental capacity to provide for his or her own activities of daily living.

Abuse can occur at the hands of a stranger, caregiver or person the elder trusts. In 2015, one in 10 elders reported emotional, physical or sexual abuse or potential neglect in the past year. Many cases are not reported because elders are afraid or unable to tell police, friends or family about the violence. Victims often have to decide whether to tell someone they are being hurt or continue being abused by someone they depend upon or care for deeply.

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse involves the theft or embezzlement of money or any other property from an elder. It can be as simple as taking money from a wallet or as complex as manipulating a victim into turning over property to an abuser. This form of abuse can be devastating because an elder victim’s life savings can disappear, leaving the person unable to provide for his or her needs. It is fastest growing form of abuse and considered the crime of the 21st century.

Financial exploitation may be committed by a person the victim knows or by a stranger. By a known person (friend, family, caregiver, or power of attorney) it includes stealing cash, jewelry and other items; forging an elder’s signature; unauthorized use of ATM, credit cards or bank accounts; and obtaining property by coercion, misrepresentation or undue influence.

Financial abuse situations more likely to be committed by strangers include con artists misrepresenting organizations such as charities, sweepstakes or foreign lotteries; swindles such as the grandparent or sweetheart scams; identity theft; medical or health care fraud; and home improvement scams.

Warning Signs

Warning signs of financial exploitation may include the following.

  • Significant withdrawals from the elder’s account(s)
  • Suspicious changes in wills, powers of attorney, titles and insurance policies
  • Caregivers or beneficiaries who refuse to use funds for care
  • Failure to provide amenities, pay bills or provide medical care even though the victim can afford them
  • Sudden changes in the elder’s financial condition
  • Purchasing unnecessary services, goods or subscriptions

Businesses who deal with older adults on a regular basis — financial institutions, attorneys, insurance brokers and others — often are in a unique position to recognize and report financial exploitation. But all business owners are encouraged to educate and train their employees on the signs of elder abuse. Visit www.howardcountymd.gov/eldersafety for more information.

If you or your employees suspect that a vulnerable adult is being abused or exploited, call Howard County Adult Protective Services at 410-872-8823 and Howard County Police Department at 410-313-2200. To learn more about what you can do to avoid becoming a victim, contact Maryland Access Point at 410-313-1234 or the Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs at 410-313-6420.

Pfc. Andre Lingham is the senior liaison for the Howard County Police Department. He can be reached at 410-313-6089. Ofelia Ross Ott is the Home- and Community-Based Services division manager for the Howard County Office on Aging. She can be reached at 410-313-6052.