Elder abuse: The silent scandal

2012-06-24T09:00:00Z 2012-06-24T20:55:54Z Elder abuse: The silent scandalCYNDY COLE Sun Staff Reporter Arizona Daily Sun
June 24, 2012 9:00 am  • 

It was about 39 degrees outside when a man pulled his van over along Interstate 17 and put his 92-year-old father on the freeway margin south of Flagstaff, leaving him lying there.

The older man from Tuba City couldn't walk without his walker, and his son knew it.

The younger man (who had many alcohol containers in his vehicle) told police that day in March 2009, "I tried to kill my father. I'm sorry."

A grand jury indicted him on charges of endangerment and aggravated assault.

About two years later, police responded to a 91-year-old Doney Park woman, nearly blind, who had lost $52,000 to her 65-year-old son.

He had made plans to move to another state, changed his name, bought a $12,000 motorcycle, and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt fresh from Hawaii when sheriff's deputies arrested him.

Each case is elder abuse, say law enforcement officers, who pursue a handful of cases in Coconino County and Flagstaff each year.

But those in the field say instances of abuse go overwhelmingly unreported by seniors who have much to lose.

Proving cases can be tough, too.

Coconino County had 77 reports of abuse, neglect or exploitation from summer of 2010 to summer of 2011, according to data from Adult Protective Services.

Of those, only 15 complaints were found to be valid, and all were cases of neglect.

"There's an inability to follow through and truly investigate in a lot of these cases," said Mary Beals-Luedtka, director of the Area Agency on Aging for the Northern Arizona Council of Governments.

AFRAID TO REPORT

One of the cases she worked on long ago illustrated for her why that can happen.

An elderly man with a little bit of dementia came to see Beals-Luedtka one day, when she was a legal advocate for seniors.

"He was living in a little travel trailer in the driveway that his grandkids bought with his money. They remortgaged (his house) three times," she said.

These grandkids were his legal guardians, and were prosecuted in court.

Ultimately, the elderly man regained nothing financially, as the grandkids had spent it all.

He was diagnosed and died of pancreatic cancer amid this dispute, with no family at his side.

Like one-third of other cases statewide, as per state data, the perpetrators were family members.

"Elders may be really afraid to report because that might be the only person in their life," Beals-Luedtka said.

About 9 percent of Coconino County's population was age 65 or older as of the 2010 U.S. Census.

Abuse can be present in many forms: lack of food, medical attention, hygiene, heat or clothing, or too little or too much medication. Bedsores and untrimmed toenails are other clues.

With about 100,000 Alzheimer's patients diagnosed in the state, sometimes partners or family members push each other's buttons when someone with Alzheimer's disease begins acting differently as a result of dementia.

"People can become very frustrated and aggravated and aggressive as a care partner toward the person with the illness," said Meg Fenzi, regional director of the Alzheimer's Association.

Furthermore, tribal members who are victims aren't protected by the state agencies available to receive reports from everyone else of suspicions of abuse.

FINANCIAL ABUSE GROWING

Statewide, the most common victim is female, Caucasian, and age 85 or older, according to state data.

And financial cases are the fastest-growing kind of abuse reported in northern Arizona, Beals-Luedtka finds.

In the case of the 91-year-old Doney Park woman, police arrested the 65-year-old son. The man had been living with his mom for seven or eight years, had not worked very often, and mostly spent his days in the garage playing video games, she told law enforcement.

By 2010, the mom realized her means to pay bills and buy food were dwindling, so she applied for a reverse mortgage -- in essence selling her home back to the bank for retirement income.

She established an account and asked repeatedly to have it set up so that any money in it would go to her two sons only after her death.

One son (the one not living with her) told police he knew the money was meant for mom's living expenses -- and exclusively for that purpose.

Being hard-of-hearing and nearly blind, her sons interpreted and signed forms with her during a visit to the bank.

They were added as jointly responsible for the bank account, rather than in lesser roles of beneficiaries after her death.

The woman noticed no bank statements seemed to arrive in her mailbox, but the 65-year-old son living with her was checking the mail most days.

She learned in May 2011 that her son had taken $52,000 from her account over a period of months and moved it to his.

He visited a more distant branch of the bank, where no one knew him.

The woman was irate when she called police.

Coconino County Sheriff's deputies began an extensive investigation, finding the son had bought a $12,000 motorcycle and a trailer for it in cash, registered the motorcycle in Ohio and changed his name.

A grand jury indicted him in October on charges of fraudulent schemes and artifices and three counts of theft.

Sheriff's deputies arrested the 65-year-old son on Halloween, just after he stepped off the plane from Hawaii.

He now has the offer of a plea deal requiring him to admit to theft, to pay back about 20 percent more than he took ($65,500) and with an option of probation or 3 to 12 years in jail.

As he rode from Phoenix to Flagstaff in the back of a patrol car last Halloween, a sheriff's deputy asked the man about his actions, according to police reports.

"He said he had done nothing wrong and that it was his mother's intention to give him half the money," the deputy reported.

Adult abuse can be reported to local law enforcement, or at (877) SOS-ADULT.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at ccole@azdailysun.com.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. ElaineRenoire
    Report Abuse
    ElaineRenoire - June 24, 2012 7:59 pm
    Here's a big financial abuser threatening the health and wealth of our vulnerable elderly and disabled and our nation; and this abuser is thriving under the radar –

    Unlawful and abusive adult guardianships and conservatorships are harming families and pauperizing vulnerable, disabled, and elderly people all over this country.

    Join the national movement for reform! Join NASGA: www.StopGuardianAbuse.org.

    Yours,
    Elaine Renoire
    NASGA
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