PENNSYLVANIA — Pennsylvania’s elderly population is rapidly growing; so are the dangers seniors face on a daily basis. Robin Soares, protective services supervisor with the Pike County …
PENNSYLVANIA — Pennsylvania’s elderly population is rapidly growing; so are the dangers seniors face on a daily basis. Robin Soares, protective services supervisor with the Pike County Area Agency on Aging (AAA), recently called elder exploitation a “rampant” problem “all over the state.”
According to the PA Department of Aging (PDA), between 2016 and 2021, reports of elder abuse increased by 63 percent. Such a dramatic uptick can be attributed to the state’s ongoing educational efforts to help residents recognize and report instances of elder abuse. However, modern technology allows con artists and scammers to employ tactics that get more and more sophisticated and convincing every year, PDA found in a recent study.
Throughout the 2022-23 fiscal year, Wayne County’s AAA has received more than 200 reports of abuse. Financial exploitation accounted for nearly one-fourth of those calls.
Social isolation and loneliness have put older residents at an increased risk as well.
“Even before COVID, but of course with the pandemic, social isolation became even more of an issue,” said Mary Ursich, director of Wayne County AAA. “We’ve seen a lot of romance scams that have been occurring, and people have lost quite a bit of money on those.”
Years ago, PA governor Tom Corbett declared June Elder Abuse Awareness Month. Worldwide, June 15 is recognized as Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
Even with efforts in place to raise awareness, many cases of elder abuse, particularly financial exploitation, likely never get reported at all.
“Compared to other forms of abuse, such as child abuse, there is a dire lack of research, not only on financial exploitation of older adults, but on elder abuse in general,” PDA found in a 2020 study on elder abuse. “There is minimal research on national costs, the causes of elder abuse or how to prevent elder abuse.”
The most common forms of exploitation come in the form of unauthorized bank withdrawals, and the perpetrators are most commonly family members. Ursich said that—since it can be emotionally devastating to file a report against one’s own family member—this also contributes to the underreporting of abuse.
“There’s a lot of reluctance to report that type of abuse, and there’s a lot of reluctance to press charges when that type of abuse has occurred,” she said. “It can be very difficult to report a family member to an agency like ours or to the police.”
Just going on conservative estimates from the substantiated cases, financial abuse is still a multi-million dollar drain on the population. Older Pennsylvanians suffered a collective loss of $58 million over the course of the 2017-18 fiscal year.
The elderly population throughout the state is also getting larger. The Census Bureau estimates that 27.5 percent of Pennsylvania’s population will be 60 and older by 2030, an increase of almost 28 percent from 2012. That’s also notably higher than the national percentage of older Americans, around 17 percent.
The local population is quickly getting older too. More than 32 percent of Wayne County residents are age 60 and older. In Pike County, the 65-and-older age group was the fastest growing demographic between 2010 and 2021, increasing by nearly 50 percent.
As the result of the increasing risks that more and more residents are facing each year, PDA recently assembled a financial exploitation task force made up of state agencies; aging, legal, financial, law enforcement and healthcare stakeholders; and other experts, “to discuss the issue of financial exploitation and focus on a multi-disciplinary approach to its prevention.”
Ursich said that a local task force that handles all forms of elder abuse has been in place since 2016 in Wayne.
“[The task force comprises] people from the banking industry, representatives from the hospital, people who provide home health care, people who are part of law enforcement or the district attorney’s office,” she said. “I think that having a local task force has been really helpful.”
While bringing the perpetrators of abuse to justice is important, Ursich said, it’s not always possible. The primary goal is prevention.
“It is difficult to bring some of these crimes to justice, because at times the older adults themselves might have difficulty testifying,” she said. “Of course bringing someone to justice is very important, but that’s not always feasible, so we’re more focused on preventing, reducing the risk and maybe recouping the losses, if we can.”
Ursich in Wayne and Soares in Pike both encourage older residents to utilize the local resources available, especially the various senior centers throughout the region for meals, social activities and educational opportunities to stay updated on avoiding the latest scams.
Wayne residents who think they or someone they know might be the victim of elder abuse can call 800/648-9620. Pike residents can call 800/233-8911. Both counties are available 24/7 to take reports of potential abuse.
The River Reporter will continue reporting on elder abuse through the month of June.
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