By Cynthia Benzler
The facts of aging have changed in the United States. In 1910, the average life expectancy was 50.1 years. In 2010, life expectancy had increased to 78.4 years (Centers for Disease Control, University of California at Berkeley). Today’s oldest U.S. population is healthier, better educated and wealthier than it has been at any time in history.
They are the first generation to receive Social Security income, have pension plans, own property and have good credit. Seniors now control 80% of the deposits in U.S. savings institutions. And families with a senior head of household command more than 70% of the total net worth of households in the United States. That is $19 trillion in the hands of seniors (MetLife, U.S. Census).
Because of this accumulated wealth, seniors experience a high risk for financial abuse. The 2011 MetLife Study of Elder Financial Abuse found that 51% of financial abuse is attributable to strangers. Family, friends and neighbors account for 34% of financial abuse. Most perpetrators are men. Most victims are women, particularly women who need some help with daily care or home maintenance.
As the economy worsens and people struggle to survive, seniors begin to look like easy targets. A 2012 survey by the Investment Protection Trust found that elder financial abuse is on the rise. But even as the crime of elder financial abuse is rising, resources are being reduced throughout the criminal justice system.
Three years ago, the Fresno Senior Resource Center boasted two Fresno County elder abuse detectives and two Fresno Police Department elder abuse detectives. The detectives worked side-by-side with Adult Protective Services and Crime Victim Assistance Advocates. Today, one designated sheriff’s elder abuse detective remains at the center.
Budget cuts to Fresno Superior Court have led to staff reductions and mandatory furlough days for the remaining staff. The court begins the 2012–2013 fiscal year with a $5.4 million deficit. All these losses reduce the ability of the Fresno County criminal justice system to meet the needs of victims of elder financial abuse.
One recourse victims have for justice is civil court. Elder law is a rapidly growing field. Fresno attorney Marlene Hubbell has noticed some growth in the number of elder abuse cases prosecuted in civil court, in addition to the small claims court elder abuse calendar.
But, according to Hubbell, “The volume of abuse occurring in our community is far from exposed by the few cases brought to light through civil court proceedings. More and more members of the legal community are seeking out education and resources to address the abuses which pervade our elder population.”
Hubbell is a member of the Speakers Bureau for Castle Keep Elder Abuse Prevention, which reaches out to numerous factions of the community to offer education and training in elder abuse laws and prevention.
Another option is justice mediation. Elder Family Issue Conferencing provides a preemptive opportunity to help families experiencing elder transition. Castle Keep refers families to the resources of Fresno Pacific University Mediation Services. FPU Mediation Services can bring families together for facilitated conversation and action plan creation.
“Families who come together discuss issues regarding caregiving, estate use and conservation. This process can prevent elder abuse and family degradation,” comments Donald Fischer, program director. “When people have an opportunity to be heard, issues and options are discovered that remedy unmet interests and perceived injustices.”
Using the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Castle Keep is working on elder abuse prevention through education. First and foremost, people must realize that elder abuse happens in Fresno County and it happens to people they know and people they love.
Educational goals include teaching people to recognize the signs of abuse, learning how to respond to that abuse, and most important, learning how to prevent abuse. Castle Keep has developed an 18-hour course on elder abuse prevention taught through Clovis Adult Education. The course, designed for families, caregivers, professional and all age groups provides continuing education credits to registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses and certified nursing assistants. These are the primary mandated reporters of elder abuse in our community.
Through its Speaker Bureau, Castle Keep tailors workshops and seminars for diverse groups. Castle Keep also cosponsors the annual Elder Abuse Prevention Conference in Fresno and is the Fresno County partner for the State Department of Corporation’s Seniors Against Investment Fraud program.
Through its many programs, Castle Keep teaches community members about elder abuse prevention, but the final responsibility for prevention lies in the hands of the seniors themselves.
Dave Case of Elder Abuse Intervention Consultants has 42 years’ experience in law enforcement, 14 of those years working elder abuse cases. “It is unfortunate that our society has reached a point in its growth where elders are not cared for or revered as much as they used to be,” Case says, “but unfortunately that is where we are.
“There are many of us out here that are trying very hard to bring awareness to this issue and get society to return to the day when seniors are not quite the target to crooks that they are now. Through awareness done by Castle Keep and other groups, we might reach that goal someday, but, until then, it is imperative that our seniors continually question deals that are too good to believe, new people in your lives that ‘only want to help’ or the sudden money that is supposedly coming your way for no good reason.
“Seniors must remain vigilant and use the common sense that helped them get this far. They must not ‘drop their guard’ as there are many that would love to separate you from your money or possessions. Question anything and everything and don’t let the crooks separate you from what is yours. You are the ‘greatest generation.’”
Cynthia Benzler is the executive director of Castle Keep Elder Abuse Prevention, a nonprofit agency. Contact her at 559-978-8825 or firstname.lastname@example.org.