As a nurse of 19 years and home care business owner for the past 7 years, I have seen quite a few mistakes by caregivers.  But the most common mistake I see year-to-year is caregiver inaction when it comes to suspected elderly exploitation. The definition of elderly exploitation, according to the department of justice, “refers to the act or process of taking advantage of an elderly person by another person or caretaker whether for monetary, personal, or other benefit, gain or profit.”  The culprits can vary significantly. They are often strangers but can also be relatives, business associates, friends, and even hired or family caregivers.

I first experienced elderly exploitation when a close relative was taken advantage of by her accountant.  The manipulation began with these types of statements, “You are a businesswoman, you can make your own decisions. Don’t let your family tell you what to do.” This strategic manipulation, which lasted several years, preyed upon her need to feel autonomous and independent. Her memory was declining but she still had not been deemed incompetent by a physician. The result was a major change to her will one week before her death where the accountant was named the main benefactor. The resulting legal battle was excruciating on my family.  During this time, I found out that this type of abuse is commonplace and made us feel like we could have done more to prevent it.  From that point on I felt compelled to use my nursing background to combat this type of abuse.  Home health care became my passion.

I find that the biggest deterrent to elderly exploitation is to educate the client and their family about the danger and prevalence of elderly exploitation in its many forms.  During new client intakes I identify risk factors such as memory loss, inability to manage finances, and not having a Power of Attorney or designated family member to manage the finances.  If the client has any of these risk factors, I educate on specific ways to protect themselves against direct theft from inside the house, i.e. the importance of locking up valuables and never giving anyone access to cash, credit cards, or checkbooks. I encourage the use of grocery gift cards for shopping.  I also strongly suggest keeping receipt logs so there is a record of all spending.

Once care begins, I use a proactive approach with strong communication between the client, caregiver, and family.  Caregivers often get so focused on the health and safety of the client; they can easily miss the elderly exploitation warning signs.   I regularly check-in to see if the client has been involved with anything financial like giving out loans or gifts.  I know phone and email scams target the elderly, so I check on that as well (read our other blog about how to protect your loved one from scammers).  I also follow up with the family or the client’s Power of Attorney to see if there are any sudden or suspicious changes in accounts.  When I, or any of my staff, feel that some form of elderly exploitation is occurring, we report it to the state’s Elder Abuse Hotline.  It is my responsibility as a home healthcare professional to vigilantly protect my vulnerable clients.  If you or a loved one have questions about home care or home health care please call now at 239-249-8318

Genny Ernst, MSN, RN