June 15th is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, and on Tuesday, civic leaders met in Helena to raise awareness about the issue in Montana. Attendees included Governor Greg Gianforte; Attorney General Austin Knudsen; Adam Meier of the Department of Montana Public Health & Human Services, Mike Grove, CEO of Bank of the Rockies; and Michael Hagenlock of DPHHS Adult Protective Services.
At the Bank of the Rockies, Gianforte said elder abuse affects thousands of Montanans each year, but there are resources available and prevention steps people can take to protect themselves and their loved ones.
“Cases of elder abuse are heartbreaking, and sadly, they’re increasing,” Gianforte said in a news release. “I urge Montanans to report abuse, neglect, or exploitation to Adult Protective Services or law enforcement who can investigate the situation. Working together, we can bring criminals to justice and protect Montana’s aging population.”
Meier said 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. APS is an investigation unit designed to protect vulnerable adults, and provide protective services through support by local, county and state programs.
Meier said in 2020 a record number 4,500 Montanans were victims of elder abuse, an increase of nearly 30% since 2018. The investigations into these cases involved adults aged 60 and older and adults with disabilities age 18-59. The investigations were conducted by 32 APS investigators.
While neglect and self-neglect are both investigated and substantiated most often, financial exploitation is also on the rise in Montana and across the nation. The average victim nationally loses $120,000 through financial exploitation.
Meier said that 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.
There are resources available to help. For example, to help prevent financial exploitation, Meir said it’s crucial that individuals have their legal documents, such as estate planning and Powers of Attorney, prepared well ahead of a medical emergency and to share those documents with a trusted circle of family and friends.
“It’s important that people have their legal documents in order well before they are needed, and to review them on a regular basis to ensure they are kept current,” Meier said.
Meier offered the following tips:
- Review all of your legal documents, especially your estate planning documents with a legal professional.
- Make sure that you have 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 anytime 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.
Knudsen said the Montana Department of Justice is committed to protecting seniors from exploitation and cracking down on people who abuse them.
“The people who prey on and take advantage of seniors are among the worst kind of criminals. Unfortunately, government lockdowns last year increased social isolation – a root cause of elder abuse – making seniors more vulnerable,” Knudsen said. “Our Division of Criminal Investigation and Office of Consumer Protection are working to hold those who commit elder abuse accountable and keep Montana’s older population safe.”
Knudsen also encouraged Montanans to educate themselves to stay in touch with old friends, neighbors, and relatives; to educate themselves on the signs and be aware for the possibility of abuse; and to report it when they see it.
Meier said in recent years DPHHS has increased efforts to raise more awareness about elder abuse in Montana communities and through new partnerships. One example includes a relatively new effort with the DOJ.
Elder abuse awareness training is provided to all new law enforcement officers at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy. Officers are trained on how to recognize and report adult maltreatment; identify the signs of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of at-risk adults; and receive information about criminal statutes and investigations related to elder abuse.
The number of referrals to APS from law enforcement is on pace in 2021 for a 50% increase.
“Law enforcement has been an excellent partner with DPHHS in addressing elder abuse,” Meier said. “They are heavily involved in communities across Montana and have a tremendous amount of contact with this vulnerable population.”
To report abuse, neglect or exploitation call APS intake at 1-844-277-9300 or visit the APS website.