Protections sought as elderly abuse escalates
Published: Thursday, November 7, 2013 at 6:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 7, 2013 at 6:43 p.m.
Barbara Thomas had one resounding piece of advice Thursday for the primarily elderly audience at a conference on the safety of seniors.
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To view AHCA's watch list for nursing homes in Florida, visit www.floridahealthfinder.gov/LandingPages/NursingHomeGuide.aspx
To report suspected fraud, the Florida Toll-Free Fraud Hotline is 866-357-6677
"Never, ever give out personal information on the phone," especially Social Security numbers, addresses and names, said Thomas, the regional director of a nonprofit called "Seniors vs. Crime," a project sponsored by the Florida Attorney General's Office that aims to reduce fraud against the elderly and help them recover losses.
Financial fraud is just one of the abuses against the elderly that's on the rise throughout the nation. On some level, many Americans will have to deal with mistreatment of a beloved elder — in a nursing home, within their own home, or even within the family.
Thursday's conference, titled "Save Our Seniors" and held at Westside Baptist Church, addressed many of these growing problems. This is the first year of the conference, and about 100 people attended -- many of them elderly.
Among those who spoke was U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, who made reference to his 91-year-old mother in saying that he recognized the challenges involved in protecting the elderly.
Celeste Lowe, the conference organizer and community service representative of Home Instead Senior Care, called elder abuse "an epidemic" that will only worsen as about 10,000 baby boomers retire each day in the U.S. Last year, people age 60 and older suffered $10 billion worth of fraud, she added.
Every year, the Seniors vs. Crime organization recovers between $2 million and $3 million for elder victims of fraud — which is just "the tip of the iceberg," Thomas said, adding that the nonprofit resolves about 66 percent of the cases.
In Gainesville, one factor that cuts down on the incidence of fraud is that many residents of retirement centers are renting, so they don't have to deal with services such as lawn care or general repairs, which create more opportunities for homeowners to become fraud victims, Thomas said.
Irvine Smith, 69, of Worthington Springs, said he came to the conference to find out about resources for his 92-year-old mother.
"She can still drive, but we don't know how long that will last," Smith said, adding that she has good support through her community in Union County and her church there.
Churches can provide some of the best support networks, said social worker Vonceil Levine of Haven Hospice. That's especially important in ensuring that the elderly are not taken advantage of.
Levine also emphasized the crucial role of self-care to avoid the type of neglect that often can trigger an abusive situation.
"Neglect can happen when you don't realize that you matter," Levine said. "The people who become vulnerable to other people taking advantage of them are those who don't realize their own value." Levine added that these feelings of low self-worth can plague the elderly as they slow down.
Lawyer Sam Boone deals with elderly who are abused and neglected, often by their own family. He gave one example of a child who said he needed $40,000 from his mother's estate so he could buy a car to take her to the doctor.
Since conflict within families can sadly be the source of problems, Boone said creating a stronger sense of community — through friends, neighbors and church members — can help prevent elder abuse from taking place.
"We really as a community have to keep our eyes open," he said.
Gainesville elder institutions on watch list
Abuse also takes place at an institutional level in assisted living facilities. There are currently 137 such facilities in Florida on a watch list created by the Association for Healthcare Administration (AHCA). That's about 20 percent of nursing homes in Florida, said Molly McKinstry, the deputy secretary for health quality assurance at AHCA.
Two of the institutions on the list are in Gainesville: Parklands Rehab and Nursing Center on Southwest 16th Avenue and Palm Garden on Southwest 62nd Boulevard.
McKinstry said the places on the watch list had a conditional license for a brief period, even though they stay on the watch list for 30 months.
"Being on the watch list is a very good incentive for them to fix these problems," McKinstry said. "We're very thorough when we investigate these facilities," she added. They investigate a range of things including resident rights, dietary issues, abuse and neglect.
McKinstry said both facilities in Gainesville received care and service violations. Palm Garden had a conditional license for one month and appealed it. Parklands had the conditional license for 69 days. Both fixed the problems, which involved individual patients' care.
Brian Lee, the executive director of Families for Better Care, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit promoting elderly rights, is pushing for even greater power and visibility for the watch list.
His organization and others met with state Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, and state Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, on Wednesday to discuss potential legislation that would require nursing homes on AHCA's watch list to say they are on the list at all entrances to the facilities, Lee said.
"What they are proposing is equality in the law (for) nursing homes, especially when it comes to bad actors," Lee said.
Lee added that it's legal for facilities to post a "gold star" status, so they should be obliged to notify families and customers of a negative status as well.
Lee's organization does a national report card and state-by-state report cards on nursing home care. It gave 11 states failing grades. Florida received a B.
"It just shows how awful the nursing care is across the country because we rank so high," Lee said.
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.