Anya was wracked with guilt, a sickening feeling that tossed and turned her throughout the night. As the oldest of the children, she had been responsible for finding a caregiver for her mom. She went through a few caregiver services, did the interviews, and settled on a young woman she thought was the best fit. Anya had been proud of herself, until, nearly a year later, she discovered that the caregiver had been stealing from her mom the entire time, in both large and small amounts. Her mom, suffering from physical ailments as well as the early stages of dementia, had not noticed the theft. By the time it was caught, Anya’s mother was in terrible financial shape. The children all made enough so that she didn’t suffer, but Anya was sickened by the memory. What would have happened if they couldn’t help? What happens to other people?
Caregiver theft is an under-recognized form of elder abuse. It may not be as obvious as physical or even emotional abuse, because it can happen in dribs and drabs, with no single instant standing out. And it is more widespread than you think: Financial abuse is the most prevalent form of elder abuse, and a recent study showed 14.9% of reported financial abuse cases to be cases of caregiver theft. To protect your loved one, it is important to recognize what caregiver theft looks like, and how to prevent it.
Understanding the Types of Caregiver Theft
Before we move on, it’s important to note that statistic means that the overwhelming majority of caregivers never steal. That said, it does happen. Here are some common scenarios and what you can do about them.
Taking a Cut
Caregivers are often tasked with going to the store or running other errands. This may provide an opportunity for a caregiver to take a cut, to skim off the top. To make the math simple, the person in their care gives them $100 to get groceries, which only come out to be $82, but the caregiver “keeps the change.” This can seriously add up over time.
- Prevent It. Prevention can be as simple, and as difficult, as balancing a checkbook. Just make sure to ask for all receipts for the week, and balance them against your loved one’s financial statements. It should be pretty clear if there is anything going on. This doesn’t have to be insulting, either. You can ask for receipts by saying that you are just making sure mom or dad is staying within their income. An honest caregiver will understand that this is the right and proper thing to do.
This type of theft could involve stealing valuables or withdrawing money using an ATM card that they’ve been entrusted with.
- Prevent It. Since big crimes can follow little ones, make sure you keep the budget balanced as discussed above. It’s an example for the overarching solution: stay involved. The more you visit, the more you are involved in decision-making, the less likely it will be that someone feels they can get away with grabbing a vase or the DVD player.
Prescription theft is increasingly common as prescription drug abuse rises. What generally happens is a caregiver withholds some medications, giving the person in their care less than what they need, and essentially pocketing the rest. They may alter the dose, or just not administer it altogether. Any meds might be kept for personal use, or sold on the street, where prices of “legal” drugs are soaring.
- Prevent It. Pay attention. Make sure you ask the doctors or pharmacists what the medications are for, and also what would happen if they weren’t taking them or weren’t taking enough. Keeping inventory alone isn’t enough; a dishonest caregiver can easily just give their ward two pills, pocket two, and make it seem like they distributed all four. So you have to be aware of what the impact of a lesser dose would be.
The Sob Story
Naturally, caregivers form relationships with their clients. Over the course of developing this relationship, a caregiver might reveal that they are short on cash for their kids’ tuition, or to get the car fixed. But sometimes these stories are lies, made to take advantage of kindness and purported friendship. Sometimes, it’s just a scam.
- Prevent It. Stay in frequent contact with your loved one. Talk to them about their day, about what’s going on, how the caregiver is doing. Monitoring the situation is best for everyone involved. Older adults, for a variety of reasons, including loneliness, can be more vulnerable to people looking to take advantage of them. Loved ones may be able to minimize that vulnerability by maintaining regular contact.
Preventing Caregiver Theft Before It Happens
No one wants their loved one to fall into financial and emotional turmoil toward the end of their lives. Try to recognize how they are vulnerable. If a caregiver seems overly helpful, it’s not a sign that they are up to anything bad, but volunteering excessively for tasks involving money can be a sign.
If your older loved one isn’t very financially savvy—which was the case with Anya’s mom (their dad had taken care of most of the affairs before he suddenly passed)—you may want to take a bigger role. This can involve receiving training, using senior-friendly financial services, or just making sure that you are there for them as much as possible.
Seniors can be taken advantage of because they don’t have people to protect them, because they are confused, or just because they are lonely and willing to help out the person who is suddenly with them the most. Being involved can be the best prevention.
Of course, we recognize that isn’t always possible. You have your own lives and concerns, practices and jobs and everything else. You may live far away. But there are ways to make sure that someone is checking in on them, or that they are involved in a home care and support services program. You want to be there as much as possible, but sometimes that “possible” isn’t enough, through no fault of your own. That’s what the community is here for. At IOA, we have an Elder Abuse Prevention Program that trains seniors and those who care for them on how to detect and report suspected elder abuse.
If you suspect elder abuse, please notify your local law enforcement agencies as well as Adult Protective Services. Caregivers who abuse the trust and vulnerabilities of their patients rarely strike in isolation: they tend to be repeat abusers, and take advantage of their charges time and time again. Reporting helps to stop the cycle of abuse.
At Institute on Aging, we are passionate about preventing elder abuse and helping our older loved ones live in peace and security. Contact us today to learn more about our wide variety of programs.