WINNEBAGO - Vulnerable adults can be taken advantage of in a variety of ways - financial, physical, sexual and mental - but steps can be taken to protect them.
"The biggest thing we see is financial exploitation," says Deb Barnes, administrator at Parker Oaks Communities, a nursing home in Winnebago.
"Financial chicanery is a big one," agreed Cami Hafner, volunteer coordinator for Interfaith Caregivers, where she works with the elderly.
Lonely adults can be targets. Those who are widowed may welcome a new friend into their life who takes more and more money from them. Hafner says watch out for suspicious changes in wills, powers of attorney and adding a name the family doesn't know to a bank account.
If family members notice money being spent at an alarming rate, especially if the "new friend" seems to have acquired expensive gifts, talk to the loved one.
Often, the elderly person being taken advantage of won't talk about it, but they are relieved when someone brings it up, Hafner said. It is akin to teenagers who won't ask for help, but who will open up if a parent or trusted adult broaches the subject.
"A lot of elderly people don't want to share the problems in their lives," Hafner said, because they think they should take care of it and not burden their children, "but it's like the roles are reversed."
Nursing home workers undergo a background check and so should anyone let into the home of an elderly person, Barnes said.
Check references for cleaning people and others and make sure records (and valuables) are safeguarded under lock and key, she added.
"Our elderly lived in a safer world [when they were younger]," Barnes said, and would think nothing of inviting into their home a "salesman" who could be a scam artist.
"In this day and age, there has to be a heightened awareness," she said.
Some problems are more subtle.
"We're seeing more and more issues where the finances of the elderly are not prioritized for their caregiving needs," Barnes said.
Family members may have full lives and, with no thought of malice, forget to pay their elderly loved one's bills. It may be an innocent mistake, but it might have legal consequences.
"When we see a bill that's not being paid, it's not our job to judge why it's not being paid; it is our obligation to report it as financial exploitation," Barnes said, adding that there is a law to report even the suspicion of a crime. "Every person in a nursing home is mandated to report what they see. We're guided by vulnerable abuse laws. We have to immediately report it to the county and the office of the health facility complaints."
The law also pertains to citizens, who sometimes don't report suspicions because they feel they don't have enough grounds to prove abuse, Hafner said.
"You don't get into trouble for reporting something that turns out to not be abuse," Hafner said, "but if you do know and don't report it, you get into trouble. It's better to err on the side of protecting someone."
Financial abuse usually leaves a paper trail, but physical, sexual or mental abuse is harder to track.
"Asking is a good thing, just 'Are you safe?'" suggested Hafner.
Inquire about unexplained injuries, bruises, welts and scars, but keep in mind the elderly do bruise easily. Be suspicious if a caregiver refuses to allow you to see the elderly person.
"It's kind of a red flag," Hafner said.
Emotional abuse can include belittling or controlling someone.
"A lot of elderly people are in a vulnerable state to where they can be intimidated," Hafner said, and their abuser will yell, ridicule or blame them for things. "Sad to say it happens, but it does."
Sometimes people purposely take advantage of those who are vulnerable, while sometimes the elderly get into trouble on their own. Hafner mentioned one incident in which a person had stockpiled multiple magazine subscriptions to enter a popular sweepstakes contest, not realizing no purchase was necessary. Some elderly write a check to every charity that asks for money, thinking it's a bill they need to pay.
"Families ask to have only personal mail delivered to mom's room," Barnes said. "Otherwise, she'll write [checks for] several hundred dollars to organizations. We can hold [junk mail] and the family will pick it up."
Hafner suggested family members keep an eye on their elderly loved ones, taking note if a lot of unnecessary goods or services pile up or if stuff is missing - they may be selling off possessions to pay bills, even not going to the doctor because they think they can't afford it, or not eating because they feel they don't deserve it or they don't want to be a bother to those delivering the meals. Those who lived through the Great Depression might stockpile food instead of eating it.
"Ask to see the checkbook," Hafner said, or suggest they have someone they trust look it over.
Some adults won't listen to their children, but will listen to an authority figure in their lives, such as doctors, lawyers, tax people, bankers, clergy, facility ombudsmen and the police.
One good resource is Middy Thomas, director of the Blue Earth Senior Center, said Hafner, adding that Thomas keeps up with the current scams and is a good clearinghouse of information.
Another good source is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Barnes said.
Concerns also can be directed to Human Services of Faribault and Martin Counties at (507) 238-4757 or (507) 526-3265.
"Communication is key," Hafner said. "Visit frequently and see what's going on in their life. It goes a long way to staving off problems."