The elderly suffer abuse by “loved ones” with little recourse
By Joan Trossman Bien
Joseph Anthony Mele of Ventura was handed a sentence of 10 years in prison in November 2015 for committing financial elder abuse against two victims, ages 74 and 93. Mele pleaded “no contest” to manipulating the accounts of the victims, stealing $800,000, according to Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce E. Dudley. Authorities were able to retrieve about half of the funds, with a loss to the victims of $400,000.
Elder abuse is a thriving criminal industry and as the baby boomers continue to age, the barrel from which to find victims is bottomless. Authorities say by far the most common form of elder abuse is financial.
Never too famous
Sometimes, the difficult issues fall on the shoulders of the children. Ask Kerrie Kasem or Catherine Falk. Both are grown daughters of very famous fathers who, in their final years, suffered dementia. The daughters are each currently lobbying to pass legislation. The specifics are different but the cause is the same: Pass a law that opens up visitation by family and friends. Adult children, friends, other family would be welcome. It is hoped that, in the sunlight, fewer attempts will be made to steal money.
Mickey Rooney, Casey Kasem and Peter Falk. All have been subjects of family disputes in their final years, often after becoming incapacitated by illness or dementia. All were the prize in the war between subsequent wives and the grown children from the first wife. In every case here, the adult children said they were barred from seeing or communicating with their dying fathers by the current wives. They said they also were not informed of medical treatment, location of the treatment or even in which state or country their fathers were buried.
A resident of Ventura County, Mickey Rooney died in 2014 following a lifelong career of great success in films, on stage and on television. Rooney stood 5-foot-3-inches but was a box office giant, working from age 3 right up to the week he passed away.
As famous as Rooney was, he found himself on the wrong end of financial and, possibly, physical abuse, according to an Oct. 21, 2015, article by Gary Baum and Scott Feinberg for the Hollywood Reporter.
The abusers? Those closest to him. Although Rooney was the highest-paid film actor at one point in his career and earned a lifetime of high salaries, he died with $18,000 to his name, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Rooney testified to the Senate Special Aging Committee about the elder abuse he had endured. He said he had been stripped “of the ability to make even the most basic decisions about my life.” In fact, at the end, his caretakers would not allow him to buy food or carry an ID.
In the world of radio, the ubiquitous Top Forty voice across the country was Casey Kasem. He ruled pop radio yet, when Kasem reached his elder years, his second wife, Jean, took control of his medical treatment. Kasem’s adult children now say that Jean Kasem contributed to the death of the radio legend and are suing Jean Kasem for wrongful death.
The family has accused Jean Kasem of neglect. When Kasem died in 2014 at age 82, he had dementia and a severe bedsore. After moving the body to another state before being ordered by the courts to return the remains to Los Angeles, where Kasem had expressed the desire to be buried, Jean shipped the remains to Norway where they were finally buried after a six-month odyssey. Kasem now lies in an unmarked grave far away from family and friends. And out of reach of the courts.
Kasem’s daughter Kerri took on the responsibility of organizing a large conference on aging. It was held in April in Orange County. Kasem said it is time for the elderly to be treated as full citizens with the same rights as any citizen. She also said that children need the legal right to visit their ailing parents at any time they choose and with full disclosure as to their treatment.
“The conference not only created an awareness and education for people who are not only going through isolation, and how that can happen to anyone. People don’t understand how they can be prevented from seeing their parents by a guardian. It’s a horrible thing,”Kasem said.
Catherine Falk, daughter of the late actor Peter Falk, created and supported the Peter Falk Bill (AB 1085) in California, which was passed in June 2015. He was diagnosed with dementia, possibly Alzheimer’s, in 2008. The law was the response to the daughter, who was legally not informed about her father’s condition. She said she was denied visitation, was not given information about his health, was not informed of his death, and that her half-sister refused to provide the location of his grave.
These very famous men apparently had no protection in their waning years and were victims of elder abuse despite their fame. The crimes of elder abuse are perpetrated on the vulnerable aging population and, in the digital age, at a lightning pace.
What is elder abuse?
Elder abuse can take different forms and can occur in different situations. Most commonly, the caretaker, a family member, is the abuser, from financial to emotional and physical. The statistics show that one out of 10 elderly people is a victim of abuse. That is about five million victims of elder abuse, more than the 1.25 million abused children and the 2.3 million battered women, combined.
Authorities say the physical abuse is grossly underreported. Only one in 24 cases is reported. Financial abuse has an even lower rate of reportage: one in 44 cases.
According to the California Attorney General’s Office, there are three types of elder abuse: physical abuse, neglect and emotional abuse. Financial abuse is a category all by itself. Physical abuse is fairly self-evident. Any form of assault, deprivation or artificial restraint constitutes physical abuse. Neglect comes from the failure to provide life’s necessities such as food, water and medications. Emotional abuse can be isolation, intimidation, threats and confinement.
Self-neglect is often the very first sign that something has changed. “Self-neglect is where adults are not caring for themselves properly,” said Senior Manager of Ventura County Human Services Agency Jennie Pittman.
“Up to 45 percent of adults over the age of 65 who have problems with self-neglect have cognitive impairment,” Pittman said. “These are people who may not be cleaning up their house properly or they may have issues regarding their medical needs, letting things go much further than they should.”
When elder abuse is occurring, one red flag for families is a change in their loved one’s demeanor, but learning why they have changed can be difficult. Often the elderly are never given a chance to be alone with family without the presence of the abuser. If anyone other than the abuser/caretaker is forbidden from speaking alone with the loved one, there may be a case of isolation. The abuser is always present, regardless of how awkward or inappropriate the setting.
Another red flag is a change in access to money. For example, the elderly person may have dutifully sent out small checks to family members for their birthdays and other occasions, but those checks suddenly and without explanation stop arriving. When asked about it, the elderly often says they no longer have any money, which may mean they no longer control their money.
In reviewing the financial records, it is not uncommon to find that all regular checks to family members have been halted except for the checks that went to the abuser. Those are continued.
Problems with reporting
A further complication is that the victim is often resistant to reporting the abuse. Many are embarrassed by the situation and refuse to let anyone else know, especially men or couples who have been married a long time. Victims may also fail to report the abuse for fear they will not be believed by authorities. If they do report it, they fear possible retaliation by the abuser. And some victims do not report it in order to protect the abuser, who may be a close family member. All of these reasons are emotionally rooted in fear, the very result an abuser desires.
In this situation, it takes another person close to the victim to report the abuse, if they are aware of it.
So much abuse, so few successful prosecutions?
When asked about the small number of prosecutions, a representative of the California Attorney General’s Office cited this statute but without comment:
California Penal Code, section 368(a)
“The Legislature finds and declares that crimes against elders and dependent adults are deserving of special consideration and protection, not unlike the special protections provided for minor children, because elders and dependent adults may be confused, on various medications, mentally or physically impaired, or incompetent, and therefore less able to protect themselves, to understand or report criminal conduct, or to testify in court proceedings on their own behalf.”
Agency follow-up for abuse
According to the California Department of Justice, the location where the abuse occurred determines which agency is the appropriate place to report abuse. The categories are: 1) a skilled nursing facility/nursing home: California Department Of Public Health 2) a residential care facility for the elderly or other residential care facility that does not provide daily skilled nursing care but does provide a substantial amount of assistance with activities of daily living: Community Care Licensing Division of the California Department of Social Services 3) a nursing home or other long-term care facility or other residential care facility: Office of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman 4) a facility that receives Medi-Cal payments (almost all hospitals and nursing homes) or a residential facility that provides substantial assistance with daily living: California Attorney General’s Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse 5) not in a residential care facility: Adult Protective Services.
Who are the abusers?
A recent study by the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York identified the abusers and their traits. The study found that 41 percent of the abusers were the sons of the victims. Another 18 percent of the abusers were the spouses. And 18 percent of the abusers were under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
What is being done to help?
Robert Blancato is the national coordinator of Elder Justice Coalition. He explained the purpose of this organization. “The 3,000-member coalition was established about 10 years ago to be the national voice doing advocacy for improving legislation and regulations.”
“Our most signature accomplishment was the passage back in 2010 of the Elder Abuse Act,” Blancato said. “It laid out a plan to increase the federal response by creating a funding stream for adult protective services. But since that law was passed, it has been a struggle to get it funded.”
Blancato looked at the prosecutorial side. “Although there are some signs of improvement, there is a need to train police to understand what elder abuse is. There is a need to have a better dialogue and training with law enforcement to do a better job protecting the elderly.”
Pittman with the Ventura County Human Services Agency had a warning for elders and their families. “Be very cautious about adding children onto your bank accounts,” she said. “It may seem like something that could facilitate some financial transactions at a certain point in one’s life, but that can lead to problems when we start talking about family members going beyond what their relative thought they were going to do. Take some care and concern about doing that.”
Last year, California‘s Office of Attorney General announced a new program to help coordinate a response to elder abuse. It is a collaboration between that office and AARP California and aims to protect seniors from fraud and abuse. The focus is on educating seniors and their families about the laws that are designed to protect the public from the scams that are circulating. The Office of the Attorney General said it will continue to distribute the information about scams and schemes and to vigorously prosecute those who mistreat the elderly population in violation of state law.