As we enjoy the start of a beautiful, hard-earned Maine summer, keep in mind that not everything in Maine is the way life should be.
There are several characteristics of Maine that leave our eldest residents vulnerable to financial abuse and exploitation: Maine is the oldest population in the country; it has many rural and small communities that can breed social isolation; and Mainers are instilled with a Yankee sense of independence and pride, which often leaves elderly residents reluctant to seek assistance or admit to abusive situations.
The vast majority of abuse goes unreported. The National Center on Elder Abuse found only one in four cases of exploitation reported to the proper authorities.
What can we do to protect our elders?
Watch for signs of abuse or exploitation.
- Has the elder’s physical appearance declined suddenly without explanation?
- Does the elder have adequate amenities at home — power, heat and plumbing, but also caretaker assistance as needed?
- Are the bills being paid? If not, is someone else controlling the elder’s funds?
- Is the elder giving excessive and unusual “gifts”?
- Have property transfers occurred that the elder cannot understand and/or explain (power of attorney, real estate deeds, new will, etc.)?
- Have social habits changed? Are visitors no longer welcome at the elder’s home? Has there been unexplained withdrawal from usual activities and habits?
- Visit elders. Help your neighbor. Be involved, and watch for signs.
- Provide respite breaks for caregivers of beloved elders.
- Educate yourself and others about elder abuse signs and prevention.
- Build a network. Facilitate communication among an elder’s caregivers, family and fiduciaries.
Protect elders from abuse.
- Prepare estate planning documents. Name trusted family members or advisers to serve in fiduciary roles in managing your assets. Don’t resign yourself to naming people you don’t trust or who may not be responsible to manage the affairs because “there’s no one else.” There are professionals who can be of assistance and social services that can provide services to help manage assets and pay bills.
- Register with the National Do Not Call Registry to reduce telemarketer scams. Scammers are sophisticated these days, and access to personal information is easy to find on the Internet. Often telephone scammers appear to know detailed information about the elder and family members, making it difficult to detect the exploitation until it’s too late.
- Do not provide any personal information over the phone. It is too easy these days for a telephone scammer to claim to be someone they are not, and extract personal and financial information.
- Do not sign any documents you don’t understand without first consulting with a trusted family member or attorney. Maine laws help protect seniors by requiring use of independent legal counsel for some transactions. Do not be pressured into immediate decisions.
- Do not throw away financial records. Such statements can be stolen from the trash and used to exploit seniors. Maintaining records, even over several years, can provide important insight to the usual habits of an elder, as well as a history of questionable or exploitative transactions.
- Screen third party caregivers carefully. Do a criminal background check and reference check for third parties hired to assist seniors in home, particularly where the caregiver has access to financial information or accounts.
Report your concerns.
- Contact Adult Protective Services at 1-800-624-8404. A caseworker will investigate to determine whether additional help or services are appropriate.
- Contact Maine Legal Services for the Elderly at 1-800-750-5353. Legal Services for the Elderly can provide legal representation at little to no cost for economically needy seniors.
- Contact the long-term care ombudsman at the nursing facility or institution. The ombudsman can advocate for the senior in a long-term care setting and protect rights guaranteed by law.
- Contact a trusted advisor of the elder – church leader, attorney, financial advisor, longtime friend of the elder, or community leader. Third party oversight or involvement can help protect seniors from exploitation and abuse.
Decline in mental cognition usually progresses slowly over time. Legal steps can be taken to appoint a guardian or conservator where no other fiduciary has been named by the elder. However, having an elder person deemed incompetent by a court is a difficult process, as it should be.
There are many options for assisting seniors of diminished capacity and uncovering incidents of abuse or exploitation. In some cases exploitation can rise to criminal levels. In other situations, civil remedies are available to recover assets wrongfully taken from seniors. Probate courts can appoint guardians and conservators with full or limited authority, depending on the limited capacity of the elder.
June 15 is Word Elder Abuse Awareness Day, an opportunity to increase awareness of this terrible issue that affects our most vulnerable citizens. By education, interaction, and intervention, we can all work together to keep our seniors safe and secure — the way life in Maine really should be.
Jennifer Eastman is a partner at Rudman Winchell law firm in Bangor where she specializes in estate planning and probate, elder law, and elder financial abuse litigation. She is a member of the Maine State Bar Association where she chairs the Elder Law Section. She is also a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.