As far as states with the oldest populations go, Pennsylvania hovers near the top, depending on which statistical report you read. Along with an ever-growing elderly demographic comes more instances of seniors being abused or cheated out of money.
Local community leaders and officials from the state Department of Aging organized a seminar on elder justice Thursday at the Senior Activities Center on Main Street in downtown Johns-town. More than 400 people registered, according to M. Veil Griffith, director of the Cambria County Area Agency on Aging. She said the prime focus was to educate the elderly and their families on the growing issue.
“The whole purpose is really to let the seniors know about the scams, the financial exploitation, the things they need to watch out for and what they can do, who they can call,” she said.
According to Denise Getgen, who heads the consumer protection division of the state aging department, more than 18,400 claims of elderly abuse were reported for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Of those, 74 percent were investigated by elder abuse task forces, with 40 percent of the investigations – more than 5,000 – turning up some evidence of abuse.
Getgen said financial exploitation is the fastest growing type of abuse in the state, just behind family or caregiver neglect.
“We’re an aging state, so there’s a lot of self-neglect,” she said. “For instance, two older adults have been married for a long time (and) they can’t take care of themselves anymore or each other. So the No. 1 is the neglect – self-neglect and caregiver neglect, where people don’t get the care and services that they need and deserve.
“Next is financial exploitation,” she said, adding that it’s quickly becoming the most concerning elder injustice. “It really becomes a public health problem because if I steal all your money and you need something like longterm care in a facility – the taxpayer’s paying for that.”
Ron Costen, of the Pennsylvania Institute of Protective Services at Temple University-Harrisburg, is one of the founders of the seminar series.
“The (majority of the) assets that banks and other financial institutions hold are owned by older people,” he said. “The thieves know that. The children know that. The caregivers know that.
“So, they target the older adults and try to find ways to get them to part – willingly or unwillingly – with their funds.”
During a presentation by AmeriServ Financial representatives, it was mentioned that around 80 percent of depositors are older than 60. When speaking on the principles of elder justice, Costen said it’s important to make sure legal barriers are in place to preserve the rights and assets of the elderly, like power of attorney. He said the “vast majority” of elderly victimizers – around 60 percent to 80 percent – are family members.
Griffith said much of the abuse may go unreported.
“In many cases, they don’t even know that they’re being stolen from,” she said. “Because it’s the ‘trusted’ person. It’s the ‘trusted’ son or daughter. It’s the ‘trusted’ caregiver. It might be the ‘trusted’ accountant or even attorney. It’s somebody who they trust.”
The Thursday seminar was the first of its kind for the area, Griffith said. But one solution has been developing for about 10 years, Costen said: Elder abuse task forces commissioned by the state aging department for abuse education, prevention and outreach.
Getgen said there are 40 such units across the state, at each agency branch, and they have been growing in popularity as the state ages. Those who suspect that an elder is being taken advantage of can call a hotline at 800-490-8505 to report the incident, which will be investigated.
Getgen said she saw signs of familiarity with scammers or thieves in the audience Thursday.
“It was clear to me that many of the people that were here have been either directly impacted – like someone’s soliciting them or trying to scam them – or they know someone, because the heads were nodding,” she said.
Costen said the Johnstown seminar had the largest attendance of any he’s attended, and he’s been to all of them.
The group will hold a symposium for clergy members at Moxham Lutheran Church today from 8:30 to 10 a.m. to educate them on signs of elder abuse and how to refer cases to the Area Agency on Aging.
Another elder justice seminar will be held Tuesday in Indiana County. For more information, call 724-349-4500.
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @justindennis.