Question: Our 66-year-old mom is starting to show some troubling memory lapses, such as forgetting old friends’ names and struggling at Scrabble (she was the family champ). She even misplaced her house keys recently. I’m the oldest of the three kids and I live closer to her than the others. I’ve started looking into taking over her affairs and having her institutionalized. My siblings have gone ballistic and my sister even alluded to elder abuse! They’re way off base, right?
Answer: Everybody take a deep breath and one step back! You all may be overreacting—you, to your mother’s “senior moments,” and your siblings to your overreaction. Relax; you haven’t crossed the line into elder abuse. Yet. But, you should tread carefully, as discussed below.
A term that has gotten quite a bit of use lately, “elder abuse” in its legal sense refers to physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse of people over a certain age (usually 65). Many states have statutes outlawing elder abuse and specifying enhanced penalties to be imposed on those convicted of engaging in elder abuse. For example, every state makes physical assault a crime, but those states with elder abuse laws add on extra jail time and/or fines when the victim is over age 65. Elder abuse can also include neglect and abandonment.
Federal law also protects the elderly. The Older Americans Act provides for the detection, intervention, and prevention of elder abuse by funding the National Center on Elder Abuse.
Your siblings may be concerned that you are bullying or browbeating your mom, even though you are acting out of your sincere concerns about her well-being. Those who emotionally abuse elders may violate state laws against elder abuse.
A common story line in TV crime dramas is the sly younger relative who manipulates the slightly dotty elderly person in order to gain control of the elder’s assets. You are not doing this but your siblings (or a third party hearing about the conflict that has arisen in your family) may wonder about your motives. Financial abuse is one of the most common forms of elder abuse and has gained a lot of attention in the media, what with Internet scams and notorious criminal cases.
Son Of Elderly New York Heiress Convicted Of Bilking Her Out of Millions
Brooke Astor, heiress to one of New York’s oldest and largest fortunes, died in 2007 at age 107. She suffered Alzheimer’s disease in the last years of her life. In 2009, a New York jury convicted her son, Anthony Marshall (along with a co-defendant) of tricking Ms. Astor out of “tens of millions of dollars.” The case made national news, especially the images of Ms. Astor appearing frail and confused during deposition testimony.
Although Ms. Astor’s son was not convicted under elder abuse laws, this case shined a spotlight on financial misdeeds perpetrated against the elderly. Your siblings may have a heightened sensitivity to potential manipulation of your mother’s finances.
While your concerns about your mother’s cognitive health may be well-placed, they may also be an overreaction to common (and natural) memory decline that comes with aging. However, since you are clearly concerned, you should talk to your siblings and your mother about having a geriatric medical professional assess her to put everyone’s mind at ease. If she gets a clean bill of health, you should probably back off and attend to her actual needs. If she is found to have cognitive or mental deficiencies indicating something other than normal aging, you and your siblings (and your mother) can discuss options.
To ease your concerns about your own risk of crossing a legal line, you should talk to a lawyer in your area with experience in elder law. This is now an ABA-recognized area of law and many lawyers are specializing in it. An elder law attorney may also be able to refer you and your siblings to a geriatric specialist to evaluate your mother. Good luck.