Our elderly loved ones can be vulnerable candidates for financial fraud. Those with memory issues or more serious forms of dementia can be especially tempting targets for unethical healthcare professionals who are entrusted with their care. Here are some examples:
- Three employees at a skilled nursing facility in Illinois worked together to coerce a patient with dementia to write checks they repeatedly cashed and split eventually draining her of almost all of her life savings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. This was uncovered in 2018.
2. In 2017 a registered nurse in Georgia lost her license after being caught using the ATM card of an 81 year old dementia patient to buy $423 in groceries.
3. A $700,000 settlement was reached in Illinois in 2017 when whistleblowers at a skilled nursing facility revealed the facility was repeatedly charging for unnecessary physical, occupational, and speech therapy services. The facility was charged with Medicare Fraud.
4. A home health care social work colleague of mine reported uncovering fraud with one of the patients she was working with. The home health care aide was stealing money from her client by writing unauthorized checks. My colleague reported the theft to the Illinois State Protective Services Agency who was brought in to launch an investigation.
These scenarios can happen in any setting where a patient is not closely monitored by a concerned party. Patients admitted to hospitals, skilled nursing programs, and those using home health care professionals, are supposed to be taken care of by these healthcare practitioners. Sometimes they end up being victimized. The nature of this crime offer several challenges that make it difficult to catch those committing professional misconduct:
- It is not uncommon for a dementia patient to say someone is stealing from them. These types of delusions are difficult to confirm. The patient truly believes it is happening whether it is or not. Hence, their reports are not always perceived as being reliable. Is it really theft, paranoia, or a patient who has a memory deficit? Police or other officials may be reluctant to follow up.
- Health care workers that are caught because of professional misconduct may be discharged from the healthcare agency they are working with. These agencies may be concerned about liability and hence not report why their employee was fired. When the employee applies for a new job at an agency, hospital, assisted living, or skilled nursing program, they are hired without knowledge of the new employees previous crimes. In these cases a background check may not even show any wrong doing because it is not documented.
- Senior loved ones may be asked to make donations to fake charities or caregivers can make up scenarios to garner sympathy from a big hearted patient/client. False promises can be made about paying the money back or how the money will be used. Also the legitimacy of the charity may come into question.
What options are available to combat these criminal acts? How can those with dementia or other disabilities be protected? Here are some steps you can take to offer additional safeguards and protection against financial abuse:
- A concerned family member or friend should be closely monitoring financial statements, bills, credit card statements, and receipts. If possible have someone who is trusted be legally appointed as executor or with durable power of attorney for finances. This protects loved ones at risk. Remove items such as checkbooks, bank statements, credit cards, from access to people who should not have any access to them.
2. If financial abuse or fraud is suspected contact your local police department, department on aging, or State Protective Services Agency, Administration on Aging Agency, to discuss how an investigation can be initiated. Your local AAA office can be found online.
3. Consult an attorney who specializes in elder law to determine what options are available to protect a loved one from fraud. Lawyers will discuss how competency is determined and explore whether getting a guardian or conservator is necessary if nobody else can assume the role. They can advise what the process is and what costs are involved.
4. When using healthcare professionals make sure they are licensed and bonded. Try to get references from people you know and trust or healthcare professionals you know to ensure that they are reputable practitioners.
5. If possible, limit access to checks, credit cards, and money for a loved one who may be impaired. Offer to help pay bills and go through the mail. If they are reluctant, offer to do it together so they feel included in the process and are less apt to voice opposition.
6. If a particular group or individual seems to be the source of the illegal activities contact them so they know a competent individual is aware of their actions. You may need to report them to the police if you are certain they are committing fraud. Ask to have your loved one removed from potentially problematic mailing lists. Have your loved one placed on a do not call list. Call (888-382-1222) and make a request as soon as possible. Also try to block any suspicious phone contact names or numbers from telephones.
The Center for Elders and the Courts reports “both federal and state laws address elder abuse, neglect and exploitation but state law is the primary source of sanctions, remedies, and protections related to elder abuse.” The center also says that additional legislation is expected that would expand federal resources to help combat criminal acts against seniors.
This article evolved from a discussion I had with a group of healthcare practitioners I meet with regularly. We all work with an older population. We practice in a variety of settings and come from different disciplines. Our members share a concern about the safety and well being for those we work with. We do not want them to be exploited in any ways.
In addition, we worry when this type of fraud occurs those committing these acts are not prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. All of us who grow older and have health concerns deserve to have someone who is trustworthy and concerned about all aspects of our welfare to advocate when our rights are violated. I want to know someone will be advocating for me if and when the time comes that I need it. We all hope that is the case.
Iris’s latest book is Role Reversal: How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents