Some Practical Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Loved Ones from Elder Abuse

Every year, the United Nation marks a special day to raise awareness of elder abuse, which is very prevalent, especially among individuals over the age of 60 with dementia.

America is, at heart, a nation built by patriots, immigrants and pioneers. At our core, we are people who are willing to fight and die for freedom.  We cherish our freedoms, especially the freedom to live independently.  Most adult children want to keep their parents at home as long as possible. Out of love and respect, they may hesitate to ask personal questions about their parents’ finances, legal documents, medical conditions and care, and who is coming in and out of their parents’ home when their adult children are not present.

The ugly truth is that unless a care plan is put into place and carefully managed, with appropriate checks and balances, staying home alone can be isolating and can expose an individual, especially one living with dementia, to a heightened risk of abuse.  I am not just being alarmist.

Consider what happened in the actual case of Sally Dinoia. In the matter of the guardianship of Sally Dinoia, Docket No. A-5276-17T3 (N.J.App.Div. December 26, 2019). Sally was 85 years old, widowed with several children, and was living in her former marital home with her adult son, John.  John had cared for her for years.  Someone raised a concern about Sally’s well-being and Adult Protective Services (APS) investigated. She was noted to have poor hygiene, fungus and bug bites on her body.  Bedbugs were discovered in her home and on her person. An exterminator was called to treat her home, but John refused to let the exterminator inside. John interfered with the attempts of a physician to examine his mother and filed litigation against APS and the local police, which were both responsible for various aspects of the investigation into his mother’s welfare.

The APS failed to investigate Sally’s finances as required. Eventually, a guardian was appointed for Sally, and that guardian was faced with the colossal task of opposing John, who was extremely litigious, in court. In the process, counsel for the guardian racked up a legal bill of over $43,000, which Sally had no money to pay. APS, which did not investigate as it should have, was ordered to pay the bill, resulting in an appeal brought by APS to overturn the judge’s order requiring APS to pay Sally’s bill.

As you can see from Sally’s case, trying to clean up the elder abuse can be like trying to wade through quicksand.  A much better option is to put a plan into place at the first moment you are reasonably sure that something more than ordinary aging or an adjustment reaction to a stressful situation is responsible for your aging parent’s memory or behavioral issues.

Here are some important steps you can take to prevent elder abuse before it happens.

  • Make sure you have legal authority to act on behalf of your aging parent. Like insurance, it’s a bad idea to put off getting it until you need it. If possible, get a power of attorney in place for financial or medical purpose.  If your parent can no longer sign a power of attorney or is unwilling to do so, apply for a guardianship or conservatorship without delay.  Don’t wait until after there is a problem to get legal authority in place.
  • Review their finances. This includes their health insurance and their eligibility for public benefits, such as the Veteran’s Improved Pension and Aid and Attendance and Medicaid. Is your parent signed up for Medicare when first eligible? Does he or she have a Medicare supplemental plan or a Medicare Part D plan?
  • Work with their doctor to put a care plan and supports in place. The goal is to limit the parent’s decline.  You can’t make your parent young again, but you can help them live their best life at home as long as possible.  Enlist the services of a geriatric care manager to make sure that the home environment is safe and to make appropriate referrals to the services and supports your parent needs.
  • Get affordable care in the home through an agency. I am a fan of home health care agencies.  They screen the care providers, handle payroll, income tax reporting, and are licensed and bonded.  They can send a replacement quickly if needed.  Having multiple team members in the home can provide your aging parent with social stimulation and enough oversight.  There is also safety in numbers.  An aging parent is less likely to be a target of abuse if he or she is surrounded by several other individuals. A care team by its nature can provide a built in system of checks and balances.
  • Work with an elder law attorney. They can help you ensure that your parent has the best care and that your parent is able for that care for the rest of his or her life, using public benefits if necessary.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

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