When Elder Abuse Hits Home
As World Elder Abuse Awareness Day approaches, a woman tells the story of how her uncle scammed and exploited her grandparents
Saturday, June 15, is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, so this is an ideal time to acknowledge the roughly 2.1 million older Americans who are victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation each year; an estimated 84 percent of those cases go unreported. Here is one woman’s story about how her grandparents were scammed and mistreated by a member of their own family.
In October 2005, the police were dispatched to my grandparents' home, 100 miles from where I lived, following a dispute between my parents and my uncle. My grandparents’ unemployed adult son was living there and had become infuriated when my parents had traveled there to make an unscheduled visit.
They attempted to leave and, as my uncle tried to keep my grandmother inside, several glass panes of a door were broken, cutting her and my mother. My parents called the police.
Trouble in My Grandparents’ Home
When law enforcement arrived, my uncle appeared agitated, inebriated and unclean. My grandparents, who declined to press charges, also looked disheveled and disoriented. Their home was filthy and littered with trash; mounds of papers and mail were piled high on tables. There was little food available, but an abundance of alcohol.
The police officers insisted this was self-neglect and didn’t open a case. So my parents reported their concerns to Adult Protective Services, even though they were terrified of retribution by my uncle.
Oblivious to Their Dangers
A protective services worker visited, but my grandparents denied any concerns for their welfare and refused offers of assistance. Clearly oblivious to the dangers they faced, they were involuntarily removed from their home and taken to local hospitals. My grandfather was discharged within a few days; my grandmother remained hospitalized for nearly three weeks.
During a family meeting with my parents, uncle and grandfather to prepare for my grandmother's discharge, it became apparent that my grandfather was showing signs of dementia. My uncle agreed to tend to such tasks as transporting his parents to medical appointments, filling their prescriptions and providing them with adequate food. He also admitted that he had been unemployed for a long time and was working on his sobriety, a glaring red flag to me.
My uncle continued living in the home, while my grandparents’ lives deteriorated. He said the arrangement was temporary. But in reality, my uncle was unemployable, due to uncontrolled substance abuse, untreated anxiety and uncontrollable aggression.
The Call to 911
On July 24, 2010, my great-uncle and my husband made an unscheduled visit to the house, which was in deplorable condition, and called 911. The police arrived and warned them not to go inside, saying they “won’t last long” due to the stench.
They went in anyway and found my grandfather dressed in a torn undergarment, emaciated, weak, filthy and lying in his own waste. Down the hall, my grandmother was wearing soiled men’s clothing, immobile and confined to a tattered mattress without linens.
That afternoon, my great-uncle and husband shared the dire situation with me. I then decided to take things into my own hands and spent two days making continuous calls to the police, protective services and the local crisis hotline. A hotline staffer visited my grandparents and determined they weren’t in acute danger.
Early Monday morning, I began a new round of calls to the police, protective services, the crisis hotline and miscellaneous elder advocacy groups, ending each call by saying: “My grandparents are going to die if they aren’t helped. What is your name, so I can document that you knew and did nothing!”
With each passing moment, I feared my worst nightmare would become a reality.
An Adult Protective Services worker called on Tuesday morning to say that an intervention was planned for that afternoon with medical professionals and the police. I arrived with them and found conditions that were even worse than I’d envisioned.
Black mold covered the walls and ceilings. Cupboards were bare; the refrigerator inoperative. There was no running water and the heating and air conditioning didn’t work. The exterior doors lacked doorknobs. Windows were cracked and shattered.
My grandfather was still wearing the same undergarment he wore four days earlier. Paramedics took him to the emergency room, where his blood pressure was so high, he couldn’t maintain consciousness.
My frail grandmother was curled up in a fetal position in the middle of a rotting mattress. The intervention team and I spent hours trying unsuccessfully to persuade her to go to the hospital.
The protective services worker and her supervisor left at 5 p.m., saying their day was over, so I called the crisis center because it handled after-hours emergencies.
The crisis worker who soon arrived was familiar with the case because of my many calls. After quickly surveying the home and my grandmother, she looked into my weary eyes, promising she’d end this nonsense and my grandmother would be saved.
She instructed paramedics to involuntarily remove my then hysterical grandmother from the home and take her to a hospital. I was relieved that both of my grandparents would soon be safe.
How My Uncle Scammed My Grandparents
Two days later, a hospital nurse informed me that my uncle had visited and it appeared that my grandmother had been signing checks for him. My grandparents were fighting for their lives, but my uncle was concerned with how their hospitalization was affecting his ability to access their money.
A new battle was clearly brewing. So I began researching local elder advocacy groups, hoping to find someone who could help me protect not just my grandparents, but their finances.
A staunch elder advocate in the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney (ACA) office — known elsewhere as a district attorney or state’s attorney — instructed me to come to the courthouse the next morning with photos and documentation of my grandparents’ abuse, saying she’d arrange for me to go before a judge.
Making the Case to the Judge
I went, and learned that we’d be asking for a protective order against my uncle on behalf of my grandparents.
I mustered the courage to state my case to the judge, who granted a temporary protective order and said I’d have to return in two weeks so he could determine if a permanent protective order was necessary. Then he asked why my uncle had not been arrested.
Finally, Action From the Authorities
The ACA explained that my family had been making reports for years and that the police had yet to create a case. Annoyed, the judge directed the ACA to call the police to initiate a report and to obtain a warrant for my uncle's arrest for abusing and neglecting my grandparents. He then advised me to take the necessary steps to become the legal guardian and conservator for my grandparents, which would require proving their legal incapacity.
By midafternoon, my uncle was arrested. The police sergeant said he was sorry his unit had failed my grandparents and our family. He assured me they'd do whatever was necessary to help us.
Though saddened by the measures taken that day, I felt victorious.
I soon relocated my grandparents to a nursing home near me to oversee their care and began working to get my uncle prosecuted. He remained incarcerated; his requests for bond were denied three times.
Dementia Makes the Case Harder
Unfortunately, neither of my grandparents could reveal information about their finances because they both had diagnoses of Alzheimer’s type dementia. But my investigations turned up dozens of delinquent accounts in collections. They owed thousands of dollars.
Apparently, each morning my uncle would persuade my grandmother to write him a check under the guise that the money was to pay for household bills. He would then cash the check at a convenience store and purchase a case of beer.
Jail for the Elder Abuse Criminal
My uncle eventually pleaded guilty to two felony charges of abusing and neglecting an incapacitated adult. He was sentenced to 10 years on each charge — a total of three years in jail and 17 on probation.
My grandfather died four months after the intervention; my grandmother joined him 11 months later.
This story is one of great tragedy, but I found great peace knowing that my grandparents were well cared for and happy during their final months.
Helping Other Abuse Victims
There were ample opportunities for the appropriate agencies to respond to the abuse of my grandparents. That's a fact.
I also know that assigning blame won’t change the past.
But I’m hopeful that spreading the word about my grandparents’ case will help improve the protection of others like them so elder abuse will receive the serious attention it deserves.