The number of Montanans reported as victims of elder abuse increased in 2021 by about 9% from the year before, state and local officials said at a recent news conference.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services said that about 4,900 Montanans were victims of elder abuse in 2021, making it the second year in a row when the number of reported victims has increased. In 2020, 4,500 Montanans were victim of elder abuse, an increase at the time of nearly 30% since 2018, officials said.
This statistic was highlighted Wednesday during a World Elder Awareness Day event at the Bank of Rockies that was attended by officials from the bank, Commissioner of Securities and Insurance, city of Helena, AARP, DPHHS, Montana Department of Justice, and the Montana Board of Crime Control.
Insurance Commissioner Troy Downing announced Wednesday the formation of the Financial Abuse Specialist Team, or FAST, intended to “provide a coordinated response to elder financial exploitation referrals with a time-sensitive, targeted evaluation by securities and insurance specialists,” the press release states.
The team will review referrals within 72 hours, consider feedback, investigate, present options and take appropriate action, the agency said.
“FAST will partner with industry stakeholders and other state agencies to provide resources to law enforcement, prosecutors, and vulnerable persons while formulating real-time remedial strategies,” the press release states.
According to the National Council on Aging, nearly 10% of Americans aged 60-plus have experienced some form of elder abuse. Some estimates range as high as 5 million elders abused each year. One study cited by the NCOA estimates that one in 24 cases of abuse are reported to authorities.
Elder abuse refers to intentional or negligent acts by a caregiver or trusted individual that causes harm to an older person. It takes many forms, including neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, and financial exploitation.
Adult Protective Services (APS) is an investigation unit designed to protect vulnerable adults, and provide protective services through support by local, county and state programs.
And the number of referrals APS received related to physical abuse or neglect has increased from 9,853 in 2021 to 11,557 in 2022, an 18% increase.
Physical signs of abuse and neglect include isolation from friends and other family members, unexplained bruising, burns or scars, dirty appearance or changes due to medication. One significant sign is the way a caregiver/family member treats the elder in public, such as pressuring to pay for items or speaking to the elder in a demeaning manner.
“We need to educate and encourage the public to report such signs to APS or law enforcement,” said Barb Smith, Administrator, DPHHS Senior and Long Term Care Division. “Knowing the signs can protect someone from further abuse or even death.”
APS investigates cases involving adults aged 60 and older and adults with disabilities from ages 18-59. While neglect and self-neglect are both investigated and substantiated most often, financial exploitation is also on the rise nationally and in Montana.
The average victim nationally loses $120,000 through financial exploitation. In many cases, the person abusing, neglecting or exploiting the elderly is a person in a trust relationship to the older person such as spouse, child or friend.
Officials say the following measures can help prevent elder abuse:
• Review all legal documents, especially estate planning documents with a legal professional.
• Make sure to have a valid, and protective Health and Financial Durable Powers of Attorney. Creating specific, limited and well-drafted documents can help protect you against financial exploitation and make it easier to honor your wishes, when you are not able to speak for yourself.
• Draft a detailed plan and communicate it with friends and family members. This is a vital step to prevent future abuse, as well as ease strain on your family and caregivers.
• Estate planning documents should be reviewed periodically, but especially any time there is a death of a named person, a divorce, a new decade passes, a new diagnosis is received or there is any significant decline in physical or mental well-being. For assistance with legal documents, Montanans are encouraged to contact the Legal Services Developer Program.
AARP has also made available a Montana specific tip sheet with valuable elder abuse prevention information.
“Every year, abuse and exploitation rob older Americans of $3 billion — and this is only the amount reported,” Tim Summers, AARP Montana state director, said in a news release.
To report abuse, neglect or exploitation call Adult Protective Services intake at 1-844-277-9300 or go to www.aps.mt.gov.