Learning that an older family member is being mistreated is a gut-wrenching experience. At first, as with many other types of abuse, you may not want to believe it, especially if the abuser was someone who was supposed to be caring for and protecting the victim. The initial impulse to deny that elder abuse is happening is a natural one, but once the shock wears off, you quickly realize that something needs to be done to protect your vulnerable loved one. Where do you turn?
It’s important to know the types of elder abuse and the signs that it may be happening. Let’s discuss first what elder abuse looks like, and then the options that you have if you suspect your older family member is a victim.
Although we are using “elder abuse” as an umbrella term, there are a number of ways in which Michigan seniors might be victimized. What we think of as actual physical abuse—striking or other intentional physical harm—is one of the less common types of abuse. The five general categories of elder abuse are:
Psychological abuse, financial exploitation, and caregiver neglect are the most common types of elder abuse, but it is common for more than one type of abuse to be going on simultaneously. Common signs of abuse and neglect include unexplained wounds or bruising, broken bones, poor hygiene, dehydration, bedsores, fearfulness, personality or behavior changes, severe weight loss, unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts, and bills going unpaid despite the fact that there should be enough money to pay them.
Some of these issues may occur for reasons other than abuse, such as mental decline or medical issues. But a big red flag is when a caregiver will not allow a senior to be visited alone; that may suggest that the caregiver is afraid the senior will report abuse.
If you suspect that an older family member is being abused in Michigan, you may want to call Adult Protective Services (APS) for the county in which your family member lives. APS should be one of your first calls if you suspect your loved one is being harmed or is at risk. (If you believe your loved one is in imminent danger, of course, call 911).
APS will conduct an investigation within 24 hours of a call to their hotline number, 855-444-3911. Someone is available to answer calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. APS will investigate allegations of abuse and address any emergency needs, such as for food, shelter, or police involvement.
You do not have to have proof of abuse to contact APS with your concerns, but you should provide as many details as possible regarding the suspected abuse. APS workers will interview the senior, his or her relevant contacts, and any caregivers. They may also review bank or medical records as appropriate. If abuse is identified, they will develop a plan to intervene and assist the senior with needed protections or services.
In Michigan, certain elder abuse may rise to the level of being a crime. If you suspect criminal elder abuse by a caregiver, you can report it through the APS hotline number above. If APS confirms that abuse or exploitation is taking place, the investigator may refer the matter to the Michigan Department of the Attorney General.
If the abuser exploited the senior citizen financially or caused injury that resulted in increased medical bills or expenses for care, a civil action may be called for in addition to other measures. In a civil lawsuit, an injured party (the plaintiff) sues someone who has harmed them (the defendant) in order to receive a financial award for their injury. Unlike a criminal investigation, which may result in jail time or fines for the abuser, the focus of a civil lawsuit is on compensating the injured person financially.
Elder abuse, like many other types of abuse, happens because the victim is vulnerable. An older person may be physically frail or in mental decline, making them dependent on a caregiver for help, and unable to escape an abusive situation. One option family members should consider to prevent or respond to elder abuse is guardianship and/or conservatorship over an older family member.
A guardian has the power to make personal decisions for a protected person, or ward. A guardian can make decisions about such things as where a ward will live and what medical treatment they will receive. A conservator has control of a ward’s financial matters. A senior may need a guardian, a conservator, or both; if both are needed, one person may occupy both roles, or separate people may serve as guardian and conservator.
By placing decision-making authority in a guardian or conservator’s hands, an otherwise vulnerable older person may become less vulnerable to abuse, since the guardian/conservator can take action on their behalf. If the senior has a conservator, they are much less vulnerable to scams and financial exploitation because the conservator controls their finances.
Of course, in some situations, it is the guardian or conservator who is abusing or exploiting the senior, and another family member needs to protect the senior by having the abusive guardian removed and replaced.
If you have questions about protecting an older loved one through guardianship or conservatorship, or about removing an existing guardian or conservator, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.