Even before the coronavirus, there was a pandemic of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation in America. Tears in the social and economic fabric of the country have put an increasing number of older adults at risk of mistreatment, often by family members. An August 2021 first-of-its-kind study by collaborators from Cornell University and the University of Toronto estimates that more than 1 in 10 older adults in New York state – over 360,000 people – may become victims of elder mistreatment over the next decade.
The researchers determined that poor health is a major risk factor, and that people who transition to living alone are more likely to suffer financial abuse. Black older adults also are at higher risk of financial abuse, a previously unreported racial disparity.
Tracking the incidence of mistreatment over time among hundreds of older adults who hadn’t previously been victims, the study confirms elder abuse is widespread and advances understanding of risk factors that should inform efforts to detect and prevent mistreatment, the researchers said.
“This study contributes to a growing base of evidence that elder mistreatment is a highly prevalent problem that demands a vigorous public health response,” said Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development in the College of Human Ecology (CHE) and professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM). “It’s a call to action for both the state and the country to think about how to better assist victims.”
The study, “Estimated Incidence and Factors Associated with Risk of Elder Mistreatment in New York State,” was published Aug. 12 in JAMA Network Open. The research was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Previous studies have measured the prevalence of elder mistreatment at points in time, including estimates of 15.7% globally and 9.5% in the United States. But the research team said such snapshots could not draw strong conclusions about the causes of mistreatment, for example whether someone’s poor health had led to abuse or resulted from abuse.
“Until you can look at people over time,” Burnes said, “you don’t have enough data to understand what you can do to help to prevent elder mistreatment.”
The new study followed older adults over a 10-year period. In 2019, the researchers followed up with nearly 630 participants in a 2009 survey conducted by several of members of the research team, called the New York State Elder Mistreatment Study.
In the earlier survey, this sample reported no experience with mistreatment in five categories: financial abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse. But a decade later, 11.4% reported having become victims of elder mistreatment, the study found. Financial abuse was the most common type, affecting 8.5% of respondents, followed by emotional abuse (4.1%), physical abuse (2.3%) and neglect (1%). No sexual abuse was reported.
The study increases confidence that poor health is indeed an important risk factor, the authors said. That means healthcare providers could play an important role in screening older adults and providing education and referrals for at-risk patients, practices that have proven effective in addressing child neglect and abuse.
“If elder abuse victims are more likely to be in poor health,” Pillemer said, “their primary care physicians may be the front line of defense when it comes to treating elder abuse.”
“The only indication,” Pillemer said, “is that these numbers will increase as the older population increases.” See the online article about the study here.
Reporting in Mississippi
Anyone in Mississippi who suspects abuse, neglect (including self-neglect) or exploitation of an older adult or a person with a disability must report it. For incidents in private homes, contact the DHS Aging & Adult Services Vulnerable Persons Abuse Hotline at 844-437-6282 or local law enforcement. Incidents in care facilities must be reported to the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (800-852-8341), the Department of Health Division of Health Facilities Licensure and Certification (800-227-7308), or the Long-term Care Ombudsman Program (800-948-3090 or 800-345-6347).
The top ten signs of elder financial abuse include: Sudden changes in bank account or practices; unexplained withdrawals of money by elder or Power of Attorney agent; large credit card or check payments to unusual recipients (salespersons, telemarketers, “cash”); abrupt changes in wills or other EP documents; transfer of assets to a family member; complaints of stolen or misplaced credit cards, valuables, checkbooks, or checks; the elder appears nervous with another individual; sudden increases in debt or credit card transactions; a person who bullies the elder to make withdrawal, or who speaks for elder; new signers added to elder’s account, new joint accounts; and possible forged financial transactions, asset transfer documents, credit card applications.
New Banking Protection
Effective July 2020, Mississippi banks and financial institutions have additional power to prevent financial exploitation of accountholders. Miss. Code § 81-5-107 (2020) was amended to provide that, where a financial institution believes in good faith a transaction may result in, or be result of, exploitation of a vulnerable person, the institution may delay completion or execution of the transaction for up to 15 days. If a transaction is delayed, the institution shall notify DHS and may notify other law enforcement to investigate. The hold expires when the bank determines there is no exploitation, or after 15 days (unless DHS or law enforcement requests extension up to 10 more days). The law does not require a financial institution or its employees to take such action and gives them immunity from legal action if they do.